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A man walks stops to look at a Mercedes-Benz F-Cell vehicle during the grand opening of a Mercedes-Benz facility dedicated to the production and technology development of fuel cell stacks in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday June 21, 2012. (Darryl Dyck/CP Photo)

A man walks stops to look at a Mercedes-Benz F-Cell vehicle during the grand opening of a Mercedes-Benz facility dedicated to the production and technology development of fuel cell stacks in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday June 21, 2012.

(Darryl Dyck/CP Photo)

Driving It Home

Fuel cells a viable green alternative for cars once again Add to ...

I had completely dismissed hydrogen fuel cells as a viable, affordable “green” alternative for light vehicles until I spent half a day touring Daimler AG’s big fuel cell centre in Burnaby, B.C., followed by a fascinating interview with the long-suffering CEO of former fuel cell darling Ballard Power Systems.

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I was surprised at what’s been going on in fuel cells these past few years, and you may be too. And that’s saying something. I’ve been cynical about fuel cells for years and with good reason. From the late 1990s into the mid-2000s, I watched Ballard play the stock promotion game with some success, riding the tech wave of the time. Ballard stock soared and split and then tanked.

In a nutshell, Ballard collapsed under the weight of outsized and outlandish promises about the immediacy of production-ready fuel cells for cars you’d be able to buy at your local car dealership by the mid-2000s, at the latest.

Let me, in fact, take you back 1997. Jurgen Hubbert, the then-top executive in charge of passenger cars at Daimler-Benz, was touting fuel cells at the time of Daimler’s May 28, 1997 $508-million deal to acquire 25 per cent of Ballard: “We believe in the technology of fuel cells. Right now we are the world leader and we believe it is possible that by the year 2004, 2005, we will have a fuel cell for the A-class, or something like that.”

Ballard president Firoz Rasul said at the time that the big challenge to commercialization was pretty straightforward: “To reduce the cost, that is the real challenge,” he said, adding that once cost goals are reached, “then the world is our oyster.”

Yes, 16 years ago Ballard and Daimler and others were tripping over themselves to convince reporters and investors and government regulators that the race was on to develop a truly viable, consumer-friendly alternative to the internal combustion engine. We were told that if the Ballard-Daimler-Benz team proved to be completely successful, we’d see in the marketplace a non-polluting car, priced at about $25,000 (U.S.). It would be capable of travelling more than 20 kilometres on a single litre of readily available fuel.

Daimler-Benz officials at the time were absolutely convinced that batteries would be only a short-term solution with too many problems and no broad customer appeal. Hubbert said over and over that Daimler-Benz was only interested in the fuel cell as an alternative power plant.

And then… And then the whole fuel cell promotion extravaganza came to a crashing halt. Ballard stock tanked, car companies turned to working on other “green” vehicle solutions and I began to ignore any further talk of fuel cells. Such blathering was to be seen as nothing more than nonsense at worst, uninformed speculation and promotion at best. You know the old saying: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

At the risk of being fooled twice, I am inching towards a new-found belief in the possibility of a cost-efficient fuel cell vehicle. After all, fuel cell vehicles could work. The science and engineering is straightforward enough, though as always the devil is in the details.

You see, a fuel cell uses an electro-chemical process to convert natural gas, methanol or hydrogen to electricity without combustion. The major hurdle 16 years ago and today is cost, and the biggest cost is the platinum used to trigger that electro-chemical process. For now, a fuel cell with the comparable size and power of a gasoline engine is as much as 10 times more expensive to produce.

Today, however, Daimler AG is treating its fuel cell program like a real business, not a lure for investors looking to make a quick profit on a stock flip. Klaus Berger, vice president of the company’s Fuel Cell Division in Burnaby, B.C., tells me that by late 2017 he expects to have ground down the costs to a point where his company can produce a fuel cell powerplant at a price comparable to a diesel-electric hybrid.

If he succeeds, fuel cells have a serious chance of becoming commercially viable, he insists. Berger is a real manufacturing guy, not a stock promoter; he knows how to cut costs and produce products that make a profit. As I said, Daimler seems to be treating fuel cells like a business.

To get the costs down, the plan is simple but the execution of it remains monumentally challenging. Berger says Daimler wants to get production volume up to a point where the company is churning out tens of thousands of fuel cells a year. At the same time, the Burnaby, B.C. facility he oversees – with its 50-plus engineers and technicians – is working to refine the manufacturing technology of fuel cells so that everything is efficient and there is no waste.

The engineers, meanwhile, are also looking at ways to reduce materials costs – platinum being the single most expensive item. Finally, Berger is leading the charge to develop a supply base around the Burnaby fuel cell manufacturing facility.

The opportunity is here, he says enthusiastically, to make Burnaby the global centre of fuel cell excellence. In fact, it likely is already.

Within a stone’s throw of Daimler’s building is Ballard’s headquarters and interestingly enough, Ballard is back in the automotive fuel cell business thanks to a new contract to provide expertise to Volkswagen.

John Sheridan, the Ballard CEO who has been taking the company back from the brink these last six years, argues that Canada is rarely a home to high-tech manufacturing, research and development clusters. Fuel cells could be a rare exception.

Indeed, the British Columbia Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Investment is touting the province to investors as the home to the world’s third-largest clean technology cluster. The ministry says dozens of fuel cell companies and research organizations are located in B.C. Among them: the National Research Council Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation (NRC-IFCI); the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association; the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation; UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre; NuCellSys; Powertech Labs; and Westport Innovations.

The ministry says about 70 per cent of Canada’s fuel cell sector is centred in Metro Vancouver. A dated but at least interesting 2008 study by Science-Metrix ranked British Columbia’s fuel cell sector as the best in the world for research output.

So a critical mass seems to be developing here. That’s interesting, though I am not a true believer yet. I don’t want to be fooled twice.

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