Power: The Fuel Cell Comes of Age

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There’s a fuel cell in your future, and you have a Canadian company to thank. Vancouver’s Ballard Power Systems is the acknowledged world leader in developing, manufacturing, and is now marketing an alternative to gas- and diesel-powered engines that consumers seem poised to accept.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen (which can be obtained from methanol, natural gas, or petroleum) and oxygen (from air) to generate electricity-without combustion, without emissions (other than heat and water vapor), and without the limited range and speed of electric vehicles that have to be plugged in and recharged every few hours. Made from materials such as Teflon, fuel cell engines should eventually be lighter and smaller than internal combustion engines made of steel and aluminum, and should become cheaper to produce at similar volumes.

Ballard has well-placed partners to help them pull it off. DaimlerChrysler AG owns 20%, Ford Motor Co. has 5%, and other automakers are involved with a variety of other research projects. Vehicle manufacturers are being pushed hard by pollution regulators: California, for instance, requires that beginning in 2003 at least 10% of the cars sold in the state by any single company must produce no air pollution.

Trials of fuel cell engines are producing results. The Chicago Transit Authority has been testing three buses powered by Ballard fuel cells since 1998. Chicago paid about $1.4 million for each vehicle, compared to $300,000 for a diesel bus. The buses accelerate faster than diesel-powered vehicles, can reach comparable speeds, and go about 200 miles before refueling. Filling the tanks with liquid hydrogen takes about 20 minutes.

Ballard isn’t limiting fuel cells to cars and trucks. There’s even a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago using a fuel-cell engine to produce its electricity, a first. The system should pay for itself within three years, and cut 10% off the combined cost of energy and outages.

For Ballard, the focus now is on cutting costs. The company won’t say how much it costs to make a fuel cell engine, but a well-accepted estimate is about $35,000 US. Ballard hopes to reduce that figure to $3500, which would be competitive with existing engines. The cost of electric drivetrains is 10 times smaller than it was 10 years ago, but that cost needs to come down another 75%. That challenge got a small shot in the arm in August when Ottawa launched the National Fuel Cell Research and Innovation Initiative, investing $30 million in research and development in the National Research Council’s Innovation Centre located at the University of British Columbia.

There are other concerns, especially about how to provide the infrastructure needed for commercial introduction (methanol is considered the front-runner for private use since existing gas stations could be used to dispense the fuel).

And while the diesel is still a very long way from being a dead duck, there’s every indication that fuel cells are the most likely alternative in the next century.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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