A backup power fuel cell for telecom applications. Credit: Kathy Fosberg; Wikipedia.

Lux Research continues to track materials and tech prospects as closely as anyone I know, and two recent reports show they still don’t shy away from touting the apparent winners and losers in many advanced materials and energy-related markets, including many out-of-the spotlight niche markets.

For example, one of Lux’s new dispatches, “Off-grid: A modest meal for starving storage developers,” offers some bullish opinions for makers of lithium-ion battery, fuel cell, flywheels and ultracapacitors — with compounded annual growth rates over the next five year of up to 23 percent—if engineers and entrepreneurs are bold and pursue the right off-grid (e.g., backup power storage) niches. (I should note that Lux’s lumping in fuel cells along side storage technologies is a little misleading because FCs don’t really store power, but serve as efficient power generators. Like diesel generators, FCs can serve in a valuable role as an off-grid energy source — as long as there is fuel available.)

Here are some of the research group’s key assertions:

  • With improved cycle life and energy density compared to lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion will see narrow penetration into the high-end datacenter market. It sees these batteries taking 6.8 percent of unlimited power supply field and 5.8 percent of telecom backup field by 2016, with a CAGR of 23 percent. Furthermore, it says that if Li-ion developers possibly can make even larger inroads if they can trim costs by about

    a third, to $400/kWh, and demonstrate improved lifetimes.

  • Lux says flywheels and ultracapacitors can play an important but supplemental role in the UPS market, capturing 10% of the datacenter UPS market by 2016. Low maintenance costs, reliability and good power density are factors that work in their favor. “Flywheels will grow from $49 million in 2011 to $104 million in 2016 (a 16 percent CAGR), while ultracapacitors will expand from a base of $88 million to $248 million in 2016 (a 23 percent CAGR),” says Lux in a news release.
  • Finally, Lux has good news and bad news for fuel cells. The company says the good news is that the potential is strong and growing in the off-grid telecom market. They say sales will move from $536 million in 2011 to $1.3 billion in 2016, a 22% CAGR. The bad news is that there are a lot of players in this tech space and the off-grid opportunities, and Lux predicts the situation will lead “to fierce competition and consolidation.”

Moving on to Lux’s other report, “The platinum devolution: Reducing expensive platinum group metals in catalysis,”  the company looks at efforts to bring to market technologies that reduce the need for PGMs in automotive, hydrocarbon processing and fuel cell applications. Unlike the market focus of the off-grid storage report, this one “compares the start-ups and technologies offering to reduce or replace PGMs such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium. It also explores companies and technologies aiming to help catalysts better withstand harsh conditions, extend their active lifetimes, accelerate their rates of reaction, or improve overall performance.”

For example, Lux likes two companies in the automotive catalyst space: SDCmaterials and Nanostellar. It says, “Both firms boast strong technical solutions as well as solid partnerships, BASF and Volvo for SDCmaterials and several undisclosed European automakers for Nanostellar.” SDCmaterials also makes high-performance additives for body armor. Nanostellar has its roots in Stanford University and NASA Ames Research Center.

Lux mentions that its opinion of another company it regarded highly, Headwaters Technology Innovation Group, has slipped a little because of a missed a few milestones. HTI has a palladium catalyst for hydrogen peroxide production and a more efficient oil refining catalyst.

Meanwhile, Lux raises concerns about one company it had high hopes for, Catalytic Solutions. It says the firm’s revenues, once relatively high, have been dropping the past two years, and it “recently lost an automaker customer after its core technology failed to meet a required performance standard.” CS has what it calls “Mixed Phase Catalyst Technology” that uses ceramic oxide catalytic substrate coatings that contain “patented mixed-metal oxides, produced from combinations of low-cost materials that form active and stable ceramic oxides when fired at high temperatures. In certain applications, the coatings use small amounts of platinum group metals together with inexpensive transition metals and lanthanides.”

By the way, Lux Research analyst Kevin See will be one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Ceramic Leadership Summit. See will be doing a presentation on “The Market Outlook for Energy-Related Technologies.”