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
least a partial answer to some of the world's most troubling energy
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
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. …