Toyota and a select few other automakers and energy companies have been touting the rise of the “hydrogen economy,” betting big on the death of the internal combustion engine and investing billions in hydrogen and fuel cell products.
But is the rest of the value chain following?
Not really, says Lux Research. In a new report the research firm says although automakers top the charts in hydrogen infrastructure innovation, with a 40 percent share of hydrogen infrastructure patents, the hydrogen economy is evolving in an isolated, Japan-specific way. It lacks support from other parts of the value chain, calling into question the viability of the concept, according to Innovating and Networking in Fuel Cells: Analyzing the Key Players in Today’s Hydrogen Infrastructure Value Chain.
“A few automakers led by Toyota are putting their money where their mouth is, but the rest of the value chain lags behind by orders of magnitude,” said Cosmin Laslau, Lux Research director and lead author of the report. “Fuel cell firms received only $160 million from VCs and private equity in 2015, while the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $100 million for R&D, and leading hydrogen firms spent a mere $70 million on R&D.”
Lux Research analysts evaluated innovation in the hydrogen economy by evaluating patent filings and partnerships. Among their findings:
- Japan, Korea dominate. Japan leads nations in hydrogen infrastructure innovation with a 45 percent share, while Korea accounts for 25 percent, and the US and UK hold a 10 percent share each. But Japan looks like a lone wolf, raising concerns that the country may be developing technology that may see adoption in the rest of the world.
- Japan’s ‘big three’ lead in partnerships. Within automakers, the strongest relationships formed are between Japan’s big three: Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Toyota is not only at the central point of partnerships with other carmakers but also has alliances with heavy vehicles maker Hino, specialists like FirstElement Fuel, and industrial gas incumbents like Air Liquide.
- Industrial gas giants are key. The industrial gas giants Air Liquide, Air Products and Linde are key in the hydrogen network, playing a central role by virtue of the supply agreements and development partnerships with OEMs – typically around deploying some initial fueling infrastructure together.
In addition to powering emission-free vehicles, some companies are looking to improve supply chain efficiencies using hydrogen fuel-cell powered drones.
This week Intelligent Energy said it signed a deal with PINC to supply air cooled fuel cell systems for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
PINC will operate the fuel-cell powered UAVs alongside battery-operated UAVs as part of its inventory robotics offering, which provides real-time inventory tracking by air. PINC says its unmanned aircraft system allows companies to apply drone technology, coupled with advanced RFID and optical sensor capabilities, to improve the operational effectiveness and efficiency of inventory checks.