Being part of a larger global economic picture is one way Canadian companies can shine. When it comes to global integration, one British Columbia-based firm might well define the concept.
Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation Corp., which is based in Burnaby, B.C., was founded as a joint venture in 2008 by three companies: Germany's Daimler AG, the Ford Motor Co., and automotive fuel-cell power systems developer Ballard Power Systems Inc. Five years later, Ford bought out Ballard's 19.9-per-cent share.
Setting up the new company in Burnaby was an obvious choice, with surrounding universities working on green technology.
"The area is kind of like the Silicon Valley of hydrogen fuel-cell development," says Robert Artibise, Automotive Fuel Cell's senior manager of stack engineering. "Canada has been a world leader in these green technologies since 2008."
The company has more than 200 employees developing hydrogen fuel cells for Daimler and Ford. Fuel cells offer a potential advance in the continuing search for zero-emission automotive engines. Using a proton-exchange membrane, or PEM, they work by creating energy chemically, converting hydrogen and oxygen through a catalyst into water and electricity. Canadian geophysicist Geoffrey Ballard made considerable advances in research into fuel cells in the 1980s.
"The only emission from these vehicles is water vapour," says Mr. Artibise.
Because each cell produces a little more than half a volt, the devices are stacked to produce sufficient voltage. Automotive Fuel Cell's fuel stack is produced at the Mercedes-Benz Fuel Cell plant, also located in Burnaby.
A Daimler subsidiary in Germany called NuCellSys GmbH has overall responsibility for the fuel-drive assembly and hydrogen storage system. "They take our component and integrate it with a couple of other components, like an air compressor and a fuel pump," Mr. Artibise explains. "They provide that subsystem to Daimler and Daimler integrates that into vehicles."
For Walter Merida, director of the Clean Energy Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, the Daimler-Ford joint venture is a significant one. "The impact this would have is making the manufacturing processes, the supply chain and the quality control protocols robust enough to scale up," he says.
In 2012, Mercedes-Benz Canada joined its parent company in Burnaby, forming a new company called Mercedes Benz Fuel Cells that manufactures fuel-cell stacks for Daimler. That move represented "a coup" for the region, says Dr. Merida. "Instead of opening a plant in Stuttgart or Detroit or California, the plant came to Canada. So we have a chance to make a contribution to making this new technology reach the mass market."
Automotive Fuel Cell also played a significant role in the three-way agreement signed in early 2013 by Daimler, Ford and Japan's Nissan Motor Co. to develop a common fuel-cell system for eventual use in separate mass-market cars. The goal of such collaboration is to reduce investment costs and shorten the time frame in bringing an affordable, mass-market fuel-cell vehicle to consumers.
The range of a fuel-cell electric vehicle is far greater than that of battery-electric cars. Compared with batteries, which are heavy and need time to charge, the fuel-cell vehicle can be refuelled in minutes. Several hundred of these vehicles are on the road in California, Japan and Europe. Customers have completed more than 12 million kilometres of real-world driving experience in them.
"Daimler has done a lot of work on the road testing of these products," says Jeremy Cato, a long-time auto industry observer. "It knows a lot about PEMs, and how to squeeze the tooling and precious metal costs associated with them."
The main challenge for fuel-cell cars, however, is the lack of refuelling infrastructure, Dr. Merida says. "Canada is behind other parts of the world" on that score, he added.
Yet Mercedes-Benz is planning to introduce a new, electric version of its GLC-class SUV later this year. A plug-in hybrid, the vehicle prototype has a battery pack in the rear and a fuel-cell stack – developed in partnership with Automotive Fuel Cell – under the hood. It has a 500-kilometre range.
One obvious market for this kind of green vehicle is China, Dr. Merida says. "Both from a climate-change perspective and air-quality perspective, China is definitely one of the markets with the strongest demand, I would think, for zero-emission technologies."
Indeed, earlier this month, at the China Economic Forum in Beijing, Daimler's chairman of the board of management, Dieter Zetsche, announced that the company plans to eventually produce its new generation of electric Mercedes-Benz models there.
Advances like these have kept Mr. Artibise, for one, highly optimistic about Automotive Fuel Cell's future. "I've been in this business for nearly 20 years now," he says, "and I believe that fuel cells will ultimately enable the world to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels."