BURNABY, British Columbia -- In their crusade to find a cheap, clean, efficient source of power, car makers, utilities, transit operators and even submarine builders have all made their way to a muddy suburban office park on the outskirts of Vancouver.
Their destination is the headquarters of Ballard Power Systems, whose drab exterior promises nothing out of the ordinary. Once the crusaders step inside, though, a Ballard executive takes them to a small conference room on the second floor and there delicately unveils the secret they have come from around the world to see.
It is a fuel cell -- a flimsy-looking tablet, about a foot across and no thicker than a computer diskette, that experts say may hold at least a partial answer to some of the world's most troubling energy problems. "They may have the Holy Grail," said Roland Hwang, head of transportation programs for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, Calif. "The innovation we have seen from them over the last five years has just blown us away." For years, Ballard has been a leader in fuel cells, which create electricity not by burning fuel but by the process of chemically rearranging the fuel's molecules to produce current with no emissions but water. When Daimler-Benz AG signed a $325 million deal in August to buy 25 percent of Ballard and jointly develop fuel-cell systems for cars and buses, Ballard solidified its lead, though company executives say they can hear the competition yipping right behind. International Fuel Cells of South Windsor, Conn., a division of United Technologies, is trying to develop a cell based on work it did for the space program. "You'd have to say Ballard is ahead now," said Fredrick L. Whitaker, a vice president of International Fuel Cells. "But I wouldn't say they are way ahead." International Fuel Cells has already installed 95 stationary power plants of 200 kilowatts each, the longest-running of which has been in service five years. The company has also developed a simpler design than Ballard's for ridding the automobile fuel cell of its waste water. And others have already put fuel cells in cars and submarines. Last year, Toyota Motor Corp. presented a fuel-cell vehicle that did not use a Ballard cell and was based on an unusual hydrogen storage system. At the Frankfurt Auto Show last month, Toyota introduced another fuel-cell car, this one based on carrying the hydrogen in methanol. While even its rivals have been impressed by Ballard, some claims have been hard to believe. How, some ask, could a handful of engineers at Ballard so drastically reduce the cost and improve the effectiveness of the membrane that is at the heart of Ballard's success when industry leaders like W.L. Gore & Associates, maker of Goretex, have not made similar claims? Others suspect some degree of hype by a small company that needs to catch the eye of investors. There are still plenty of obstacles to mass-producing a system that could someday replace, or at least compete head to head with, the internal combustion engine. One of the biggest is simply deciding which fuel to use and how to supply it. This debate pits fuel-cell supporters against big oil companies, since the fuel of choice is pure hydrogen, which does not come from an oil well but can be derived from methane and natural gas. There are also concerns about reducing a fuel cell's stubbornly high costs and about whether tough emissions regulations in California and elsewhere will be enforced. The regulations that require "zero-emission vehicles" have already been delayed once, from 1998 till 2003, and another long delay could undercut both industry and consumer demand for clean cars, which initially are expected to cost more than conventional ones. But if they even come close to the vision of Ballard and Daimler- Benz, fuel-cell cars will easily outperform today's battery-powered electric cars. A fuel cell can come to full power almost immediately, giving the cars quick acceleration and -- depending on the fuel used -- practically unlimited range. …