Automakers have faith hydrogen fuel-cell cars have zero-emission future

The shine went off hydrogen fuel-cell cars well before the auto industry drove off a cliff last year, but that doesn't mean carmakers have abandoned the zero-emission technology.

The shine went off hydrogen fuel-cell cars well before the auto industry drove off a cliff last year, but that doesn't mean automakers have abandoned the zero-emission technology.

In the 1990s, proponents predicted consumers could be driving fuel-cell vehicles as early as next year.

But they underestimated the obstacles in the way of producing a reliable, affordable car with the kind of range and drivability motorists now take for granted.

The U.S. government, facing a trillion-dollar deficit and a costly bailout of ailing domestic automakers, has slashed research funding for automotive fuel cells in favour of alternatives such as battery-electric and biofuel-powered vehicles.

Canadian fuel-cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems Ltd., of Burnaby, B.C., has virtually given up on the automotive side, focusing instead on more prosaic applications such as industrial forklifts and stationary backup power generators.

But the major automakers, including former Ballard partners Daimler-Benz and Ford, as well as embattled General Motors, are still sure hydrogen fuel cells represent the best long-term answer for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and air to produce electricity by running them through a chemical catalyst. The only byproducts are heat and water.

Fuel cells produce far less CO2

Auto industry experts at this week's international conference on fuel cells in Vancouver said even if carbon-based sources such as natural gas or biomass are used to produce the hydrogen, fuel cells are more energy efficient and produce far less CO2 than hybrids or plug-in, battery-powered vehicles.

But for now, fuel-cell vehicles represent part of a multi-faceted solution to reduce greenhouse gases and conserve petroleum resources, they said.

Battery-electric vehicles seem the best choice now for short-distance city use, with plug-in hybrids that use small on-board engines to recharge their batteries better suited to longer distances.

Conventional gasoline- and diesel-powered trucks will continue to be the mainstay in the commercial sector for some time.

Down the road, though, they agreed hybrids should provide the range, power and all-weather durability to replace conventional cars.

The generally accepted goal is to produce a vehicle that can go 500 kilometres without refuelling while surviving northern winters and desert summers.

Automakers are closing in on those goals.

Honda's latest fuel-cell car, the FCX Clarity, has a range of 390 kilometres and can start in temperatures ranging from –30 C to 95 C, Ryan Harty, a Canadian-born engineer with American Honda's fuel-cell research centre in Torrance, Calif., said in an interview.

Automakers have largely settled on 2015 as a target date to get mass-produced fuel-cell cars into dealer showrooms.

Fuel-cell size of desk-top computer

Development lately has gone on largely out of the public spotlight as the focus shifted to hybrids and plug-in cars such as the Chevrolet Volt.

The first ungainly prototypes had fuel-cell stacks, which produce the electricity, and drive systems so bulky there was room for little more than the driver.

Development has shrunk the components so they can be packaged in a compact car or mid-sized SUV. The Clarity's fuel cell is roughly the size of a desk-top computer, and sits in the car's centre console between the driver and passenger.

A dozen fuel-cell cars, including the Chevrolet Equinox, the Clarity and Mercedes-Benz's A-Class F-CELL, drove into Vancouver on Wednesday after a 2,700-kilometre trip up the West Coast from San Diego, Calif.

Consumer-ready Clarities are being leased to motorists in California for three years to test their real-world durability. The lessees are a mix of average consumers and celebrities such as actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

"We wanted to make sure people were paying attention," said Steve Ellis, American Honda's manager of fuel-cell marketing.

'These vehicles are real'

The cars are being leased through dealerships so they would get an idea of what it takes to sell and service fuel-cell vehicles, he added.

In all, there are about 300 fuel-cell vehicles from different makers in the hands of California drivers, including a version of GM's Equinox crossover SUV. GM is also promising to bring eight to Canada for use at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

These are not test mules, says Lawrence Burns, GM's vice-president of research and planning.

"These vehicles are real," he says.

Andreas Truckenbroadt, chief executive of the Vancouver-based Automotive Fuel Cell Partnership, said cost reduction remains the biggest challenge for commercializing fuel-cell vehicles. The goal is to make them comparable to current engine technology.

"We still have a way to go but we know how to get there," he said.

He supports the idea of co-operating to develop some components the customers don't see, such as hydrogen compressors, valves and humidifiers, that don't effect performance or driving characteristics.

"We're fierce competitors but we should not be worrying about brand specifications," said Truckenbroadt, who comes from Daimler-Benz.

Burns agrees there's room for collaboration among automakers and suppliers.

"It's silly to put our capital and our engineering dollars into those parts if they're not going to be the basis for winning the race," he says.