Fuel cells out of the hype but still coming

В рубриках: Automobile | Автор: admin 30.04.2010

Fuel Cells: Out of the Hype But Still Coming

In the past decades, fuel cells auto technology has become a buzzword in the industry. But the hype was silenced more than a decade ago. But experts are sure that technology will play a great part in the future of the automotive realm.

John Sheridan, the president, chief executive and the director of Ballard Power Systems, remembered it fondly and paradoxically. Sheridan said in an interview: “For the most part, we had only a working proof-of-concept back then,” he said. “We hadn’t really begun to do anything with it. But everybody was excited about it.”

Between 1989 and 1994 Ballard, hydrogen fuel cells and car companies like General Motors Corp. have begun investing heavily in fuel cell technology. But there were inherent problems that would restrict the public’s interest. Fuel cell technology is science. And according to some, science often does not conform to the needs of the next news cycle. There are trials and errors.

Science has little respect for deadlines. Additionally, it is also complicated and expensive. Its intricacy defies the sound bite, whether political or straight news. As a fact, its expense rattles investors who are more interested in the next big payoff than they are in the next big or best thing.

Ballard, founded in 1979 as Ballard Research and now headquartered in Burnaby, had formulated a technology fated to change the world. It was a hydrogen fuel cell with a proton-exchange membrane. The technology would trigger a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. In cars and trucks, hydrogen fuel cells would signify an end to pollution coming from the Saturn muffler and other manufacturers’ tailpipes. It would also mean curbing reliance on foreign oil. Additionally, the technology would remove the vehicle as a negative component in the environmental equation. The press was agog and politicians rapt. But the hype and the enthusiasm faded.

Ballard and hydrogen fuel cells faded from the news, ceded to the plea of gas-electric hybrid technology and to the delusions of the quick fix and the silver bullet. And therein dwells the satire. Neither hydrogen fuel cells nor Ballard went away. In fact, they are bigger than ever, as evidenced by Ballard’s extensive research-and-development and manufacturing facility.

“Maybe we made some mistakes in the beginning by over-promising – that is, giving people the idea that the benefits of this technology would be immediate,” Sheridan conceded. “The reality is that we’re in a marathon race.” He suggested that Ballard and the technology it has pioneered have many more miles to run before it reaches any finish line.

At present, notwithstanding its reported loss of $14.2 million in the first quarter, Ballard’s future looks hopeful. And fuel cells are beginning to surface in sectors largely invisible in the past. Sheridan said that the continued development and application of the technology amounts to a long-distance race.

But at least he and Ballard now appear to be gaining more political backing as evidenced at the Pacific Economic Summit’s Clean Energy Conference held last week. Both Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commended Ballard for its contributions to the development of alternative energy.

“We have to embrace the changes in front of us,” Campbell said at the summit. “We have to look at what is being offered and ask: `How do we make the world a better place?’ “That means we have to be willing to develop technologies that might not have an instant impact, “but that will have an impact 20 or 30 years from now.”

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