Skip to main content

A customer fills up at one of the three hydrogen refuelling stations ina Vancouver

Just beyond the shadow of the Lion's Gate Bridge, a single pulp mill in English Bay spews enough wasted hydrogen to fuel 20,000 fuel cell cars a year.

Free, unused hydrogen fuel is right there, venting into the atmosphere. Eventually it will combine with oxygen to produce, well, rain.

"Industry creates a tremendous amount of waste hydrogen. Capturing it, storing it and distributing it is the problem - the infrastructure problem," says Honda engineer Ryan Harty.

Story continues below advertisement

Infrastructure is the big problem for car companies working to bring hydrogen fuel cell cars to dealerships. Engineers such as Harty already believe they have a handle on how to make a hydrogen fuel cell viable in your car and it could one day replace your gas or diesel engine.

In concept, a hydrogen fuel cell is not a terribly complicated device. It combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electrical current by running them through a chemical catalyst. The only byproducts of a fuel cell are heat and water.

In a vehicle, the power is used to run an electric motor in much the same way a battery does the same job in battery-powered electric cars. In fact, many engineers refer to fuel cells as "fuel cell batteries."

As an energy user, a fuel cell has the potential to be 60 per cent efficient in using its hydrogen fuel - compared to gasoline engines. which at their very best might achieve 30 per cent energy efficiency.

Sure, the driving range of fuel cell cars, the cost, the durability and reliability, all these need to be resolved in ways that make hydrogen fuel cell cars competitive with gasoline internal combustion engines (ICE). But Harty and other smart engineers think they are near to having those issues whipped.

"We still have a way to go, but we know how to get there," says Andreas Truckenbroadt, chief executive of the Vancouver-based Automotive Fuel Cell Partnership. Of all the challenges, cost reduction is the biggest. A fuel-cell powerplant today costs about 10 times as much as current ICE engine technology, say industry sources.

Honda's FCX Clarity fuel cell car is one example of what is possible with fuel cells. It's a mid-size sedan now being tested in small numbers by real owners in the United States who pony up $600 (U.S.) a month for a lease. Honda, of course, subsidizes the lease so that the Clarity makes financial sense for those leasing one.

Story continues below advertisement

Cost aside, the car makes practical sense. The Clarity is about the size of an Accord and has a realistic range of nearly 400 km between fill-ups. Other auto makers also have fuel cell cars on the road right now, undergoing testing in everyday conditions, driven by people who generally like to think of themselves as clean, renewable energy early-adopters.

In all, there are about 300 fuel-cell vehicles from different makers in the hands of California drivers. A General Motors' Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV is among them.

GM has about 100 Equinox fuel cell crossovers on the road in Los Angeles. GM is also promising to bring eight Equinoxes to Canada for use at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Assembled in Canada, GM is testing the fuel cell Equinox much like Honda is with the Clarity, though in greater numbers. Honda has just seven Clarity cars on the road now, with the goal of 200 within three years.

The point Larry Burns wants to make is that the Equinox fuel cell car is not a science project or a promotional stunt. "These vehicles are real," says GM's vice-president of research and planning.

Honda, GM and others want their fuel cell cars in the hands of Los Angelenos with families and jobs and nothing-special lives. All they have in common is a desire for clean transportation.

Story continues below advertisement

"We can make a very compelling consumer product," says Harty. "The cost issue can largely be addressed with higher (sales) volume. We think we're on track with the durability and reliability issues. So infrastructure is the issue. Without infrastructure, we can't do this."

By "this," Harty is referring to Honda's publicly stated goal to build and sell a hydrogen fuel cell car that is comparable in performance and price to today's internal combustion engine car - by 2018.

"If we're going to build a new transportation infrastructure we should pick the best technologies. Hydrogen fuel cells are one of them," he says.

Certainly John Tak believes all this. The CEO of Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Canada is trying to resuscitate lagging interest in fuel cells and the infrastructure problem.

"The public does not know about fuel cells because the public does not see them," he says, displaying just the tiniest hint of frustration.

This explains Hydrogen + Fuel Cells 2009, last week's international conference organized by the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Association and the Province of British Columbia. Tak chaired the conference.

And it also explains why on the last day of meetings attended by about 1,000 delegates, a convoy of hydrogen-powered electric vehicles pulled up to the new Vancouver Convention Centre, right across the water from that pulp mill producing enough unused hydrogen fuel to drive the entire fleet of vehicles to the moon.

In fact, the fleet drove to Vancouver from San Diego, putting in more than 2,000 km along the way. Yes, the prototypes made it, though they had to bring along some of their own hydrogen for fill-ups.

Sure, it was a stunt, but one the California Fuel Cell Partnership felt necessary. The rally of hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles demonstrated that hydrogen fuel cell cars work, that they can travel long distances and keep up with traffic on public roads.

But all the promotion may be in vain. Tak says that, with the recession in full swing, with car companies cutting back on spending to conserve cash and government budgets stretched tight and into deficits with economic stimulus spending and various industry bailouts, research and development spending on hydrogen fuel cells is declining.

The actual dollar amount is only one problem. Indeed, governments have never funded the bulk of hydrogen R&D. But in the recent past, government funding and policy statements have been signals to investors that this area had a future. Those signals are not so obvious any more.

"This sector is driven by private investment," says Tak, adding that 83 per cent of the R&D money spent on fuel cells and hydrogen research in Canada has come from private sources. Yet even with money tight, governments in Canada and the United States could make a difference by at least putting in place comprehensive and intelligent energy policies. So far, nothing like that exists on either side of the border.

"We are operating in a policy vacuum," says Tak.

There are some government signals, though, and they're not all good for hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cell supporters.

For instance, Tak says a very small amount of money is available in Canada for hydrogen fuel cell R&D. Last month, Ottawa announced a five-year, $1-billion (Canadian) Clean Energy Fund, but the bulk of that - $650-million or two-thirds - will be spent on large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects.

The oil and coal industries will applaud that and that certainly is good news for the Conservative Government's supporters in Alberta. Alberta is home of Canada's oil sands development and a province where 90 per cent of all the electricity is generated by coal-fired plants.

But the funding announcement is not such good news for hydrogen supporters and researchers working on clean and renewable energy projects. Sure, there is some money up for grabs among proponents of wind, tidal and solar power. But that money can also go to oil sands developers worried about the environmental cost of water use and tailings.

Then there is the United States. For all his claims to being a "green" president, Barack Obama's first budget actually slashed funding for the hydrogen fuel cell program supported by Obama's predecessor, George Bush.

The U.S. Department of Energy is cutting $100-million from the hydrogen fuel cell program in fiscal year 2010. Instead, some funding is going to a new budget item - "fuel cell technologies."

Insiders say at least some of this is being driven by pure politics. That is, the Obama administration is distancing itself from the "hydrogen economy" goals of former President Bush.

"We asked ourselves, 'Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?' The answer, we felt, was 'No,'" U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu said in a briefing on the budget for reporters.

Fuel cell cars are apparently out of favour with Obama. Instead, the 2010 budget gives some $68-million for ongoing fuel cell research aimed primarily on devices serving in buildings and other applications, not cars - which got $168-million in 2009.

This is a clear signal to Ottawa, where what passes for energy policy - at least as it relates to the auto industry - is largely being written in Washington. Fuel cell cars are out of favour.

Those who applaud this shift and oppose hydrogen fuel cell cars say the cost issues have not been addressed by the auto industry and are not likely to be any time soon. But the even bigger issue is infrastructure, they say.

Today there are just a few more than 120 hydrogen stations in Canada and the United States - including those along the much-vaunted "Hydrogen Highway" in California and British Columbia. That's not nearly enough to support mass use of fuel cell cars and a significant jump in the number of hydrogen stations is unlikely in the current economic climate.

And so Canadian fuel-cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems Ltd., of Burnaby, B.C., has virtually given up on building fuel cell stacks for the auto industry. What a change. Little more than a decade ago, Ballard was the darling of the auto industry. Ballard now is focused on producing fuel cells for industrial forklifts and stationary backup power generators.

Still, Harty, Burns, Truckenbrodt and others argue that hydrogen fuel cells remain the best long-term answer for reducing carbon dioxide emissions using transportation fuels that are clean and renewable.

That's because hydrogen can be produced in a variety of ways. It can be reformed from natural gas or produced using electricity and water. As Honda's Harty says, "Anywhere there is water and electricity, you can produce hydrogen."

But even if carbon-based sources such as natural gas are used to produce the hydrogen, fuel cells are more energy efficient and produce far less CO{-2} than hybrids or plug-in, battery-powered vehicles. So hydrogen offers a plentiful and clean form of energy and cannot be ignored.

And that's why as recently as last year, the U.S. National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, was estimating that auto makers would be selling as many as two million hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars by 202.

"In the long term, hydrogen and fuel-cell vehicles look like a major part of the solution," says GM's Burns. "The dilemma is, How do you manage the transition? We don't have a hydrogen infrastructure like we have a petroleum infrastructure."

But one isn't required, argues Burns. In Canada and the United States combined, nearly 200,000 fuel stations distribute gasoline. Millions of kilometres of pipelines and thousands of tanker trucks feed into a huge system developed over the past century. Replacing that infrastructure entirely is unrealistic.

Instead, GM believes that a hydrogen network can be built at a fraction of the cost. The key is to concentrate on select urban centres.

"We don't think about this as a nationwide deployment on Day 1, where everything has to be covered immediately," says Britta Gross, GM's manager for hydrogen and electrical infrastructure.

For instance, an initial network of 40 hydrogen stations in Los Angeles would cost $80-million (U.S.) and cover the needs of that city in the early years of hydrogen deployment, she says.

And in Vancouver, perhaps 20 stations would do the job. Already there are three stations in operation. As for the hydrogen fuel itself, well, there is that pulp mill right there on English Bay.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨