Goodbye battery, hello fuel cell

As a small pack of battery-powered cars is put to sleep, new fuel cells make possible zero-emissions vehicles that really do hum.

Topics: Electric Cars, Auto Industry,

The battery-powered car has died several deaths in the last 10 months, due to a lack of range, speed and power and an acute sales deficiency. A spokesman for General Motors said the EV1, which was put to sleep this month, had been “a valuable experiment.”

Meanwhile, deep in clean, green British Columbia, Firoz Rasul is revving up the power for a next-generation, environmentally hip automobile. An amiable 47-year-old Kenyan of Persian descent, with an engineering degree from the University of Hertfordshire and a McGill MBA, he’s a walking ad for globalism — and the CEO of Ballard Power Systems, the world’s leading maker of automotive fuel cells. Backed by a stock price that has doubled since Christmas, he’ll happily tell you why the seeming triumph of Titanic SUVs swilling buck-a-gallon gas may not be the final act in the automotive story. “The Stone Age” he reminds us, “didn’t end for a lack of stone.”

Time out for a quick electrochemistry lesson: the fuel cell. Hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) go in one side; H20 and electric power come out the other. Quiet. Squeaky clean, as long as you don’t mind the odd puff of steam. With a bit more technology, you can even substitute methanol or propane for pure hydrogen. Fuel cells have been a next great thing since a tinkering English judge named William Grove put the first working model together in 1839. You just had to be NASA going to the moon or building a space shuttle to even think about it, because fuel cells were too expensive and heavy.

That was then. Today you can visit a little demo area at Ballard’s suburban Vancouver research lab and flick on a slick little hydrogen generator the size of a shoebox, connected to a high-intensity light; all you hear is the cooling fan. There’s also a portable TV/VCR combo and a nifty home backup generator that, as ideas at least, are pretty high on the coolness scale. And this month Ballard and Coleman Powermate, the Sunbeam subsidiary that makes generators and air compressors, announced that they’re teaming up on 50 different prototypes of portable power products.



But the real thing is 20 minutes away, at the Port Coquitlam municipal bus yard; coolness level: zero. Charlie the driver fires up — if that’s the right phrase — one of the resident Ballard prototypes. It goes. It stops. It runs sleepy commuters into downtown Vancouver every morning. In other words, it’s a bus, albeit one that sounds vaguely like a large refrigerator and has big blue letters reading ZERO EMISSIONS VEHICLE painted along the roof. It’s electric, but there isn’t a nasty, leaden, quick-draining-and-slow-recharging battery in sight.

By 2003, 55 Ballard-powered buses are on contract to be humming around California cities. Other prototypes are already on the road in Stuttgart, Germany; Orlando, Fla.; and Chicago — Mayor Richard Daley celebrated their arrival with the consummate affirmation of greenness: downing a glass of exhaust water. That still leaves what the nice people at Ballard do not like to call the Hindenberg problem. (For the record, compressed hydrogen is not appreciably more hazardous than the propane people routinely use to power outdoor barbecues.) Fortunately, the impressive array of machinery needed to get the H and O feeds just right make enough noise to avert an unintended consequence discovered last year in Portland, Ore., where an ultra-quiet electric-powered light rail system killed four unsuspecting bystanders last year.

It will be a while before fuel cells power your brand-new sport utility vehicle — power-to-weight and cost-efficiency ratios are still a problem. But 2004 is a red-letter year for fuel cells: As the law now stands, that’s when California will begin requiring as much as 10 percent of every major car makers’ sales to be zero emissions. A trendy new crop of electric/gasoline hybrids gets close. But Honda says it will jump the zero-emissions gun with a production fuel-cell car by 2003, by reusing electric drive systems already developed for battery-powered cars. And a full-out, 2008 Mercedes 300 Electro is perfectly plausible. DaimlerChrysler and Ford Motor Co together have $1.25 billion riding on a joint venture with Ballard.

Ballard cut the ribbon last October on Plant One, a pilot assembly line targeted at producing 160,000 commercial units annually. And Ford and Daimler over the past month officially quit the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that lobbies against environmental restrictions. As Gordon Gecko might have said in “Wall Street,” clean is good.

So hats off to Firoz Rasul and the other innovative geeks who are angling for the 21st century to live up to its advance billing. An economy that runs on photons. The mayor of Chicago drinking water from the exhaust pipe of a bus. Cars that really do hum. The new millennium — gotta love it.

Spencer Reiss escaped from San Francisco to join the Gilder Technology Group in Massachusetts, where he co-edits New Economy Watch.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>