Hydrogen= Water and get up and go

Published on Thu, Dec 1, 2005 by ack Kintner

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Hydrogen = Water and get up and go

By Jack Kintner

If someone were to offer you a test drive in a new car that runs on air and puts out only water as exhaust, you might not be too surprised if he tried to sell you one of the bridges along the route.

But earlier this week, at the invitation of Rebecca Young of Ballard Power Systems in Burnaby, B.C., I went up to see how well the latest in fuel cell technologies works in a car.

It’s impressive. Quiet, smooth and easy. About as peppy as a Honda Accord but much quieter, appropriate for this level of vehicle, a Ford Focus that Ballard converted and has driven about 3,000 km. It’s one of five demonstration cars in the lower mainland so equipped. There’s even a hydrogen refueling station on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus that operates much like a propane refueling station does, delivering a quantity of hydrogen gas into a securely pressurized tank.
Jim Sturek of Blaine is Ballard’s vice-president of product development and has had a major hand in developing the new power source. Sturek came to Ballard five years ago after 26 years with the Ford Motor Company, moving to Blaine in 2000.

“Company founder Jeff Ballard got his start in North Vancouver,” Sturek said, “and began developing fuel cells that use a proton exchange membrane (PEM) in 1983.” The process involves introducing hydrogen and compressed air on opposite sides of a membrane that allows the hydrogen protons to pass through but forces the electrons through an energy-generating circuit.

As by-products the process generates a little heat and distilled water and nothing else. “That’s right,” Sturek joked, “you could fill your steam iron from the exhaust pipe, or let the car idle in your baby’s room to humidify it.”

The array of cells in this example sit under the front two seats, and the electric engine is in front. The hydrogen tank takes up about three-quarters of the small trunk. With no moving parts outside the normal running gear for the car, there’s little if anything to break. The car comes with an automatic transmission, air conditioning and even a CD player.

One fly in the ointment at this point is finding hydrogen filling stations, and also the pollution caused by the production of hydrogen for use as fuel. Young said that as the use of hydrogen fuels increases these problems will be addressed.

Ballard is working with governments around the world to develop demonstration projects in areas that can benefit from completely clean and non-polluting sources of power to show the practicality of fuel cells.
For example, President Hu Jintao of China visited Ballard the same day last September that he was at the Peace Arch, and drove the car. Last week China began using a test fleet of fuel cell powered buses in Beijing.

“So far,” said Young, “our various buses and cars around the world have racked up almost 2 million kilometers.” For more information go to www.ballard. com.