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When Fuel Cells Invaded Texas

A special publisher's report from the 2004 Fuel Cell Seminar in San Antonio, Texas

By Bill Moore

I stopped to chat with a sales representative for a company that makes seals and gaskets for the automotive industry. I was curious what his company was doing at the Fuel Cell Seminar, held this year in San Antonio, Texas.

While manning your typical trade show booth, he explained that his firm was interested in someday supplying seals for fuel cell stacks. He had a few samples inside a glass case. He pointed to one and explained that it cost $15 and it takes two for each MEA or Membrane Electrode Assembly, the critical "cell" part of a fuel cell stack in which hydrogen and oxygen interact to make electricity.

Even worse, he intimated to me, MEAs currently costs $300 apiece and if it's ruined in the process of applying the seal, it costs his company $330. It takes scores of cells to make a single fuel cell stack. Looking around at all the other booths in the exhibit hall, he puzzled how all these companies could afford to "throw so much money at this technology" without selling anything. With a wry smile and bemused tone in his voice, he speculated that the only people making money in the fuel cell business today are test equipment makers and fuel cell conference organizers.

He wasn't the only person at the show to question the present-day economics of fuel cells, but for the moment, companies seem perfectly willing to spend whatever it takes to grab a piece of the future, even if that future is decades away. That fact was obvious not just from the number of exhibitors (over 160 are listed in the conference guide) but also from the number of attendees, by my estimate close to 3,000. The Fuel Cell Seminar was a success by every conventional measure.

When I learned that Vectrix was going to display their heavy motor scooter at the Seminar, I decided it was time to make the 1000 mile drive down to San Antonio, where my wife's brother lives, and spend two days at the event to get a clearer sense of where the industry is technologically and fiscally.

Two Key Insights
As a result, I learned two key insights. First, lots and lots of money is being spent; billions of dollars, in fact, every year. And two, the focus apparently has shifted away from transportation to stationary fuel cell applications.

Although Ford, GM, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler had cars in the show -- and I'll talk more about them in a minute -- none of the keynote presenters represented the automotive industry, which I am told was deliberate. The conference organizers, led by its chair, Michael Binder with the US Army Corps of Engineers, sees the problems of putting fuel cells into cars as too intractable for the time being. For the immediate future, the market looks far more promising in the standby/back-up power market and co-generation.

To underscore this, two of the principle opening plenary session presenters were Roger Saillant, the head of Plug Power and Jerry Leitman the CEO of FuelCell Energy, both heavily involved in the stationary fuel cell market. Curiously, Ballard seemed to be maintaining a rather low profile, as was ChevronTexaco/Ovonics. I never did see Ballard's booth even after spending three hours snooping around the exhibition area. When I asked why, one wag at our luncheon table replied that the Vancouver, B.C. fuel cell pioneer had had "too many blind dates", an apparent reference to all the partners the company has allied itself with over the last decade, and now couldn't decide which to wed or bed.

I also learned that we're finally moving beyond the "promise" to the product stage. Idatech, out of Bend Oregon, told me I can buy their 5kW standby power system, good for eight hours of run time on six standard industry cylinders of hydrogen, for $15,000. To illustrate the system's responsiveness, they had me throw a switch to cut off the power from the convention center what was powering a load simulator. The fuel cell responded immediately, the initial second or two being handled by the unit's batteries.

With the permission of the Fuel Cell Seminar, I recorded the opening plenary session and EV World will be making those presentations available in MP3 audio in the coming weeks. But one trend that is shaping up is the growing interest in mating fuel cells to turbines. The idea is to make more efficient use of the heat being generated by the stack; a successful implementation could drive overall efficiency above 70%. The goal is to generate electricity from both the fuel cell and a microturbine, like those manufactured by Capstone. There is also interest in developing systems that create electricity, while also running absorption chillers for air conditioning and making hot water for heating or manufacturing processes, wringing the maximum amount of energy out of the feed stock fuel, typically natural gas.

There continues to be talk about generating hydrogen from renewable sources and a Hydrogenics representative showed me a photo of the wind turbine in Toronto that provides electric power to the company's electrolyzer. After the system has operated for a bit longer, I want to do a follow-up to see how the economics and technology are working out. I will be very curious how much hydrogen the system produces and at what cost. This should give all of us a better sense of whether or not this approach makes economic sense.

Voice in the Wilderness?
I ran into one of the industry's leading skeptics after the opening session. Dr. Ulf Bossel, who has argued and written extensively on this question, attended the Seminar and had the temerity to stand up in one of the afternoon sessions on the first day and challenge the economics of the whole hydrogen economy mythos. During our brief exchange, he urged me to continue to push for battery electric vehicle technology because it made far more sense than hydrogen in local commuting applications.

While using pharmaceutical-grade hydrogen in a PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell remains problematic, progress is being made in adapting other fuels from propane to methanol in fuel cells. One of the more exciting developments is the continued maturation of direct methanol fuel cells or DMFC, which are capable of using this alcohol fuel directly, without reformation. MTI, Casio and others are getting very, very close to putting micro-fuel cells that run on methanol on the market; and I was told that an Israeli company already has one out. The initial market will be portable electronic devices including laptop computers and cellphones.

Here Come the Big Watt DMFCs
Microfuel cells aren't the only arena in which DMFCs are showing progress. Larger kilowatt size units are starting to appear. Farschungszentrum Jürlich has developed a DMFC that produces 1.3 kW nominal power and 1.8 kW peak power. They replaced the batteries in an Arrow 4x4, made Germany and now run the unit on liquid methanol without the need for a separate reformer. The vehicle was on static display in the exhibit hall the opening day, but by the time I got to the Ride & Drive, an auxiliary component had failed and it wasn't running. A replacement was being shipped in from Germany and the team was hopeful to have it back in operation by Thursday, but by then my wife and I were on our way to Carlsbad Caverns for some R&R.

The German team wasn't the only one to experience mechanical troubles. The royal blue GM HydroGEN3 fuel cell-powered Opel Zafira was also "kaput"; it had suffered a fuel sensor failure or something and sat forlornly with its two embarrassed technicians. I didn't ask why no one was driving the Ford Focus fuel cell, but I suspect it too may have suffered some sort of failure. In fact, the only fuel cell car running at the time on Wednesday afternoon, the first day of the Ride & Drive in the parking lot of the Alamo Dome, was the DaimlerChrysler FCell. A long line of attendees stood for many minutes to get a quick spin around the parking lot. Toyota didn't participate in the Ride & Drive, at least on Wednesday.

For some reason, few attendees wanted to take the GEM NEV out for a test drive, so I immediately was able to get in with Hydrogenic's driver for a couple trips around the lot, most of the time behind the wheel. The Canadian fuel cell manufacturer has converted the Neighborhood EV to run on one of its 3kW fuel cell stacks that it has teamed up with Maxwell ultracapacitors. I learned that the object this project is to demonstrate that you don't need a large fuel cell stack to power a vehicle. The ultracapacitors provide sufficient power for the initial launch and acceleration, as well as nearly 100 percent regen as opposed to the usual 10 percent available in conventional batteries. The 3kW hydrogen stack provides the cruising power. It's a neat set up; and assuming the costs can be brought down, the reliability dramatically improved, and hydrogen can be made widely available at a competitive price; it shows great promise. In Toronto, Hydrogenics refuels this vehicle from its wind turbine-powered hydrogen electrolyzer, making it one of the "greenest" machines in the world.

Two-Wheeled Wonders
Two other vehicles at the Ride & Drive show equal promise; the Vectrix heavy motor scooter and the new Asia Pacific ZES IV motor scooter. In the near future, I'll have a "From-the-exhibition-floor" interview with Peter Hughes who'll talk about the Vectrix machine, but I can say this much after a chilling and thrilling ride on one around downtown San Antonio early Wednesday morning, this is one exciting EV! My only regret is that the company (wisely) is going to focus its marketing efforts in Europe first, initially Italy where there is not only a great need for a pollution-free scooter solution, but where the culture accepts two wheel mobility more than in North America. There is a chance, however, that EV World may get to participate in an early test program with one of the pilot manufacturing prototypes due out next year. Sales in Europe are slated to begin in early 2006.

The other interesting two-wheeler is the Asia Pacific ZES IV, which had been completely off my radar screen. Based in Taiwan and Anaheim, California, the company has created a hydrogen fuel cell-powered light motor scooter that really works. In fact, the company chairman, Jefferson Yang, informed me that he expects to begin selling the machine in Taiwan starting sometime next year. I got to drive it a couple times around the parking lot and it lived up to my expectations. Hydrogen is stored in two cylindrical cannisters, each slightly smaller than a quart of milk. To "refuel", you simply unlock a door just behind the seat and pull out the used cannisters, which store hydrogen in metal hydride, and replace them with two fresh ones. Total refuel time? Less than two minutes.

Dr. Yang estimates that the average driver in Taiwan should be able to run slightly less than a week before needing to stop by his local retail outlet for swap used cannisters for new ones. He said he is now in the process of setting up the distribution system, which I believe he told me will be handled through gasoline service stations around the island.

The maximum speed of the ZES IV is 35km/hr on the level and 12km/hr on a 10 degree incline. It's maximum range at 35km/hr is estimated at 60 km. Again, initial marketing will be focused on Asia and Europe, but EV World plans to do a follow up interview with Dr. Yang to learn more about his company and products.

Making the Numbers Work Still a Challenge
My overall impression of the Seminar was quite favorable. It was well-organized, well-funded (I got a great backpack, denim shirt, a bound conference abstract and mini-CD when I registered), and enthusiastically attended by thousands of delegates from around the world. I was encouraged to see that the industry is focusing its efforts where fuel cells make sense for the immediate future; essentially because they have little choice. If they want to be around next year, they have to start making money for their investors; and that means concentrating on the near-term, which is stationary power. It is here that the industry has the opportunity to "cut its teeth" by improving costs and performance, lessons that later can be applied to mobile applications.

Just before racing away to photograph the Ride & Drive vehicles, I spent a few minutes talking with a representative of FuelCell Energy who was surprisingly candid with me. He told me that for the moment, fuel cells -- even stationary ones -- need government incentives to "make the numbers work". Without them, even the willing early adapters have a very hard time justifying their expense.

After listening to Dan Rastler from EPRI discuss in the last session of the day on Tuesday one failed stationary fuel cell project after another, its obvious that as promising as the technology remains, it's still very much in its infancy. I was reminded of the infamous German V2 rocket program, where one after another, the rockets exploded on or near the launch pad. Eventually, the engineers worked out the "bugs" and tragically some 2000 V2s descended on London in the closing months of World War Two. We're very much in the early stages of this technology. The Hydrogenics GEM, the Farschungszentrum Jürlich "JuMOVe", and the ZES IV show that steady progress is being made. But as everyone recognizes, we still have a long way to go and many hurdles yet to overcome.

EV World wishes to extend its appreciation to the Seminar organizers for permitting us to cover the event. Many thanks for a job well done!

Times Article Viewed: 8071
Published: 07-Nov-2004

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