Staying connected

Why not use a fuel cell to help us phone?  Ian Griffin writes in the Leicester Mercury from the UK about a company in Loughborough that is using hydrogen fuel cells for mobile telecoms towers in India.  Let’s hope it works.


Intelligent Energy, of Loughborough, provides hydrogen-powered phone calls

First it was cars and motorcycles, then it was aeroplanes, now it is mobile phone calls which are being powered by a hi-tech, green energy source developed in Leicestershire.

Intelligent Energy, a spin-out from Loughborough University, has signed a multi-million pound deal with Ascend Telecom, an Indian network services company, to install its hydrogen fuel cell power units at 4,000 mobile telecom towers across 26 states.

Together, these towers serve 10 million mobile phone users in India – equivalent to the entire network coverage provided in Greater London, or one-fifth of the total in the UK.

Henri Winand, a former Rolls-Royce engineer who is chief executive of the fuel cell company, said the collaboration is worth an initial £50 million to both companies.

He said: “Because of its sheer size, and the expectation that the number of telecoms towers will almost double to 800,000 by 2020, India represents a huge opportunity.”

Fuel cells use the power generated when hydrogen is combined with oxygen, and have been regarded as an alternative to conventional battery power in the automotive industry. Their only by-product is water.

Intelligent Energy is the reigning Leicester Mercury Business of the Year after receiving the prize last March.

Mr Winand said its technology offered a solution to keeping telecoms networks operational in developing markets such as India, where there has been “an explosion of cell telephony usage, but often the power infrastructure is not there to be able to cope”.

Typically, diesel generators are used to provide back-up power during these blackouts, but running them accounts for up to 25 per cent of the total network operating costs – reducing profitability for the mobile tower operators.

Intelligent Energy also plans to offer its fuel cell technology to other companies in the Indian telecoms infrastructure market, which is valued at around £1.7 billion a year, as well as other developing markets where mobile telephony is rapidly expanding.

Mr Winand said the deal with Ascend Telecom would have a “material impact” on their results.

In 2012, the UK company reported sales of £43.9 million, up from £11.9 million the previous year.

Intelligent Energy – which is still based on the Loughborough University campus, one of Europe’s first centres for fuel cell research in the 1980s – pioneered the first hydrogen fuel cell motorbike and powered the first manned fuel cell power flight.

Ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, it also linked up with the London Taxi Company to develop a fuel cell black cab, which was used to ferry dignitaries around during the games.

In addition, the group now includes a consumer electronics unit.

At this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it announced it was joining forces with Brookstone, a US retailer, to develop a USB-sized portable energy device capable of powering mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Three years ago, Intelligent Energy set up an office in the Indian city of Bangalore, as part of a plan to create partnerships with utility firms there.

The company, based at the university’s Holywell Park, is also working with companies such as Peugeot, Suzuki and Boeing to develop zero-emission cars, motorcycles and aircraft.

It also has a joint project with Scottish and Southern Energy to create a fuel cell to provide heat and energy in homes.

The business, founded in 2001, employs 225 people at its head office in Leicestershire. It employs another 75 people in the United States, India and Japan.

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