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.

Published January 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

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.

By Spencer Reiss

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

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