Recently, Wal-Mart placed an order for 1,738 fuel cell powered forklifts that move products in Wal-Mart’s warehouses. This highly publicized order spotlights the emerging commercial markets, the technologies and patents that have made the production of energy through fuel cells more cost effective. The commercial use of fuel cells is certainly not new, however. Advancements in the technology have decreased costs associated with the production of energy from fuel cells and consequently there has been a rise in the commercial use of fuel cells. The Clean Energy Patent Growth Index shows that for the last decade fuel cell related patents outpaced all other clean energy technology patents until 2013 when solar patents for the first time surpassed fuel cell patents.
The number of patents that have been issued related to fuel cells is an indication of the varied forms of fuel cells and technology used in the production of fuel cells. A very simplistic description of the technology is that a fuel, typically hydrogen, is oxidized in the first segment of the fuel cell to create positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons. While the positively charged ions pass through the fuel cell, the negatively charged electrons are diverted and directed through a wire to create an electric current. The electrons complete the detour to meet up with the ions in the final segment of the fuel cell where they combine with oxygen to create water or carbon dioxide. The energy produced is clean, with water or carbon dioxide being the only by-product.