by Jeremy Cato

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

Vancouver, B.C. – We are duelling with a crush of city traffic along Fourth Avenue in trendy Kitsilano as a steady rain slaps against the windscreen of a nondescript little city runabout that, in the words of Gerhard Schmidt, Ford Motor Co. vice-president of research and engineering, is “even more precious than a Ferrari.”

Except that if you have a quarter million or so you can buy a Ferrari right now. Not so this Ford Focus fuel cell vehicle, one of five hydrogen-powered cars taking part in a three-year demonstration project launched here in late March. Despite the feverish promises of various chief executives and other corporate types back in the 1990s, you and I cannot write a cheque for a lovely “green” hydrogen fuel cell car today.

That’s not how things were supposed to be by now. As recently as 1999 officials from Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Burnaby, B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems were projecting fuel cell cars would be in dealerships by 2004. Last year, then.

Promises, promises. No, you will not find zero-polluting fuel cell cars for sale anywhere. In fact, as of right now only about 500 fuel cell vehicles are in experimental use in the whole world. Ferrari, for the record, sells several thousand cars a year.

My precious little ride, this Focus fuel cell car I am using to weave through the stop-and-go commuter crush of a busy Thursday afternoon, is a test car to be used by B.C. Transit. The latter is part of a consortium participating in a five-year, $9 million “initiative” to test fuel cell vehicles (FCV) in real-world conditions. Other partners include the Federal Government, Ford, Fuel Cells Canada and the Government of British Columbia.

Power for this third-generation Focus FCV comes from the Ballard Mark 902 fuel-cell stack, Ballard’s latest in a series dating back to the early 1990s. Last month at the National Hydrogen Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., Ballard officials unveiled a timetable for making fuel cell technology feasible by 2010 and the 902 is a stepping stone to getting there.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

At least that is what we’re being told. Ballard is also saying it will demonstrate a commercially viable fuel cell “stack” within five years. General Motors is also aiming to put commercial fuel-cell vehicles on the road by 2010. In fact, most major automakers are working on developing the technology.

Case in point: at about the same time Ballard was proclaiming its plans in March, GM and DaimlerChrysler announced an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop hydrogen fuel cell vehicles over the next five years. GM plans to build a fleet of 40 hydrogen fuel vehicles and distribute them in Washington, New York, California and Michigan.

DaimlerChrysler, which is already testing 100 Ballard-powered fuel cell vehicles in various locations around the world, plans to place fuel cell vehicles with consumers in order to learn about performance in everyday driving. Toyota and Honda also have very active fuel cell programs and quite a few other companies are busy working on the technology, as well.

How does a fuel cell work?
By Jeremy Cato

The basic idea is to generate electricity when hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce water. In other words, electricity to drive an electric motor is generated via a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Each cell takes in hydrogen on one side where a catalytic reaction separates the protons from the electrons (the latter essentially pure electricity). The protons pass through a “proton exchange membrane” while the electrons take a circuit to power the vehicle. At the other side of the membrane oxygen combines with the protons and the electrons returning from the circuit to make the only emission – water. A fuel cell stack is made up of hundreds of cells.

A fuel cell produces electricity by combining fuel and air in an electrochemical reaction. A fuel cell stack contains many fuel cells working together to create significant amounts of electrical energy. In a vehicle like the Focus I am piloting, the electricity is used to run electric motors which turn the wheels. Electronic control systems manage the whole complicated process of generating electricity, channelling it through to the wheels via electric motors and keeping this finicky drive-train cool.

Yes, fuel cell vehicles are complex – vastly more so than we were led to believe five and six years ago. So, in what is clearly a bid to reassure a variety of communities – investors, governments, environmentalists, potential consumers to name four — Ballard officials say they will use targets similar to ones set by the U.S. Energy Department to create durable, reliable, cost-effective fuel cells capable of starting in freezing conditions.

Since 2003, the U.S. Government has been pushing a five-year, US $1.7 billion research program to develop hydrogen as America’s next energy source. In Canada, federal officials say the government has invested more than $200 million to develop hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

All sorts of groups are involved. Natural Resources Canada is one, as well as the National Research Council through its Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation. The latter is serving as the “home-base garage” and filling station for the Vancouver Fuel Cell Vehicle Program in which this and four other Focus sedans are taking part.

Perhaps Ballard will be successful in the end. After all, fuel cell technology is not new and most problems at least in a broad sense have been known not just for years, but for decades. Fuel cells date back to the 19th century and have been used in a number of applications since, including the Apollo moon missions.

Unfortunately, there are few viable commercial applications. One barrier is the high cost of making fuel cells which use precious metals as the key catalyst in creating the electrochemical reaction that creates electricity in a fuel cell. There are also challenges associated with hydrogen production and storage, as well as a huge range of other technological challenges yet to be overcome – from reliable cold-weather starts to lightweight and easily packaged cooling systems.

Nonetheless, Ballard president and CEO Dennis Campbell says his company has drawn up a road map to the marketplace. “We’re showing through our actions and not just words that this technology is real and by 2010 we’ll be able to demonstrate its commercial viability,” he said in Washington.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
Dr. Gerhard Schmidt, vice president, Research and Advanced Engineering, Ford, (right) and Dennis Campbell, president and CEO, Ballard, stand next to a new Focus FCV at the celebration of Job One production for the hydrogen fuel cell hybrid electric Focus sedans, September 28, 2004. Click image to enlarge

Here in Vancouver I am trying to get my passenger and Ford’s chief scientist, Gerhard Schmidt, to commit his company to a timetable. So when will Ford put a “For Sale” sign on its first fuel cell car?

“This is a hard question,” he says, cautiously choosing his words. “I am careful because we had so many announcements in the past. Yes, it will happen, but I am a little bit careful about over-promising. We shall follow the (US) Department of Energy road map. Perhaps by 2015.”

Schmidt – and he is definitely not alone in this – does not see customers paying a premium to drive a fuel cell car, even as gas prices soar into the stratosphere; even as Canada battles to achieve its Kyoto agreement targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and even as Toyota and Ford itself are finding plenty of customers willing to pay extra for the low emissions and great fuel economy of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape Hybrid.

Like all hybrids, both the Prius and the Escape Hybrid SUV (sport-utility vehicle) cost thousands more than a traditional gasoline vehicle, yet there are waiting lists stocked with customers ready to pay $5,000 and $6,000 more for them compared to their gasoline counterparts.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

“I just don’t see our customers paying more money for it (a fuel cell vehicle),” he says, shaking his head, even as I mention the obvious success of the current but limited crop of hybrids for sale right now. “You have to come to a competitive price position for a vehicle with similar attributes. Not necessarily every attribute must be the exactly same as today’s (traditional gasoline) products, but they must be close. “When we talk about the mass commercialization of fuel cells, that means meeting the demands of our really demanding customers. Normally our customers are not willing to compromise.”

Schmidt deserves credit for his honesty and candor. But then he’s a scientist and they are generally notorious for their inability to over-hype the latest gee-whiz development. The same cannot be said for certain corporate promoters, public relations flaks and government officials.

Keep in mind that it was two years ago when the Vancouver Fuel Cell Vehicle Project (VFCVP) first announced a three-year, $5.8 million initiative to test five fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) in Vancouver. Two years ago!

The environmental challenge
By Jeremy Cato

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to capture, transport and deliver as a fuel. Today, most commercially available hydrogen is made by large oil companies. They refine it from petroleum, which of course goes against the overall environmental benefits of running a vehicle on hydrogen. In other words, while a Honda FCV produces zero emissions, it is often the case that the refinery from which the hydrogen has been sourced is far from emissions-free. Thus, tailpipe emissions are transferred to another location, but not permanently eliminated.

Of course, the ideal long-term solution is to use a non-polluting source of electricity – e.g., power from a hydro-electric generator to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis. However, to produce adequate hydrogen to fuel a large fleet of cars and trucks requires a tremendous amount of electrical generating capacity.

This year some 17-18 million new vehicles will be sold in Canada and the U.S. combined. Imagine the volume of electrical power needed to produce the hydrogen needed to fuel even a fraction of that fleet.

Still, while no one is certain where an adequate supply of electricity might come from, many experts think it could be produced from a combination of renewable sources: wind, solar, hydro, nuclear and even a cleaner generation of coal-fired power plants.

Back in 2003 at a hydrogen conference in Vancouver we were told about this wonderful idea. We heard about a plan in place to see how fuel cell cars perform in real commutes and also to find out how drivers like them. Are they easy to refuel? What sorts of real greenhouse gas reductions do you get with a fuel cell car? Answers to these and other questions seemed only around the corner back then. We will be waiting for a few more years until we get the answers.

In short, fuel cell promoters – both government and corporate – have hurt their cause by over-promising and under-delivering. That is a real shame because fuel cells really do have promise.

My relatively brief test drive in a Focus prototype is convincing me that many commuters would be more than happy to cruise around in a fuel cell car. My Focus’s electric drive system is very responsive and quick and its 300-kilometre range is more than adequate for most people. Sure, its hydrogen fuel tank carries only enough fuel to provide for about half the driving range of a conventional Ford Focus, but few commuters drive more than a couple of hundred clicks a day anyway.

In almost every important way, the five-passenger Focus fuel cell car I am driving looks and behaves exactly like any other Focus sedan – except there’s hardly any trunk space thanks to a big hydrogen fuel tank. True, it’s a couple of hundred kilograms heavier than a conventional Focus, but the weight is distributed 50-50 front and rear, so the handling is well balanced.

Moreover, zeroing in on just the fuel cell stack and the electronic controllers and computer systems integrating the drive system does a disservice to all the other technology at work here. The Focus FCV also has lightweight glass, magnesium and aluminum components, titanium springs, a regenerative electro-hydraulic braking system, electro-hydraulic steering… There’s a lot of smart stuff integrated into this car.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Visible are the fuel cell stack, hybrid battery pack and electronics built into the Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

As for the fuel cell technology itself, the Focus FCV runs via what the engineering types call a “battery-hybrid system.” That is, the Ballard fuel cell stack supplies electricity through an electrochemical reaction to an electric motor that powers the wheels. But not directly. A high-voltage control device and a chemical battery act as intermediaries. The battery, in fact, provides a power boost similar to a turbo boost in a conventional car.

And the car really moves. When I punch the throttle – and keep in mind that from the driver’s seat everything works just like a gasoline car – the power is there, right now. Whoosh. Again, that sort of performance is no small achievement.

You see, fuel cells right now cannot immediately produce power to a motor. That’s where the battery with its stored energy comes in. Eventually the fuel cell’s output catches up with the motor’s demand and the role of the battery is reduced. Meanwhile, the battery is recharged during braking and deceleration and it also, of course, gets charged by the fuel cell.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Components of the Ford Focus Fuel Cell Vehicle. Click image to enlarge

Ford, Daimler Chrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp. have all adopted this sort of battery-hybrid system. General Motors is using a direct supply fuel cell system and Honda has opted for a third way using an “ultra-capacitor-assisted” system. An ultra-capacitor in lay terms might be called a non-chemical battery for storing electricity. In Honda’s fuel cell vehicle, the ultra-capacitor charges and discharges energy in response to voltage fluctuations in the fuel cell. Honda officials say the ultra-capacitor system makes for a more ideally responsive vehicle.

If all this sounds exhaustingly complicated, it is. But the details of the technology are less important than the idea that the world’s biggest automakers are all actively engaged in high-level and very expensive research and development aimed at creating commercially viable fuel cell cars.

Cost is a huge barrier. Fuel cell vehicles are simply too expensive. No one, says Schmidt, will pay Ferrari prices for a fuel cell Focus. Fuel cells cars will also need more range per tank of fuel, they will need to meet all safety regulations, they really must trim down their weight and they must be proven durable and reliable.

There is another even bigger problem, too, and it’s out of the hands of both the automakers and government. The problem: No infrastructure for producing and distributing hydrogen fuel. True, the partners in the program overseeing the Focus FCV test fleet plan to have a so-called hydrogen highway lined with a few hydrogen filling stations in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics. But it will only be a demonstration program. If hydrogen vehicles are to become truly mainstream, drivers must have a network of places to fill-up and no one has even hinted at a commitment to create such a network yet.

2005 Ford Focus FCV
2005 Ford Focus FCV. Click image to enlarge

A recent study commissioned by German industrial gases group Linde says it would be possible to build a network of hydrogen filling stations for just 3.5 billion euros in just 15 years.

The study released in February and conducted by energy consultant e4tech and Imperial College, London, suggested that 2,800 hydrogen stations spread across Europe could adequately serve some 6.1 million hydrogen cars.

The hydrogen filling stations would be located in heavily populated areas and along motorways. The study did not propose a definitive answer to the question of who would fund the construction of this hydrogen highway.

“It is a chicken and egg question,” says Schmidt as we park the Focus. “You cannot start developing an infrastructure first because if you are an energy provider you do not want to invest billions if there are no (fuel cell) cars. And we (at Ford) are not going to develop and build one million fuel cell cars if there is no infrastructure.”

So even if the automakers and their suppliers such as Ballard do manage to create a reliable, durable, affordable, safe, lightweight, no-compromises fuel cell car, until there are places to fill it up, the whole exercise will remain nothing more than a promising science project.

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