POWERING THE FUTURE—THE BALLARD FUEL CELL AND THE RACE TO CHANGE THE WORLD.
By Tom Koppel.
John Wiley; 288 pages; $29.95 and £16.99
FORWARD DRIVE—THE RACE TO BUILD “CLEAN” CARS FOR THE FUTURE.
By Jim Motavalli.
Sierra Club Books; 288 pages;
VANCOUVER is about a thousand miles from Silicon Valley. But as a hotbed of new technology it is a million miles away, not even on the same map. Yet in a garage in the unfashionable north bay area of the city was born a machine that could change the world—the Ballard PEM fuel cell. It promises to be to the car of the 21st century what the internal combustion engine was to the car of the 20th.
The fuel cell takes hydrogen and oxygen and combines them into water vapour, producing electricity in the process. Small and powerful enough to drive a car, it has none of the drawbacks—limited range, slow re-charging—that have sunk battery electric vehicles so far. Its evolution features prominently in “Forward Drive”, Jim Motavalli’s racy account of the race to make cleaner cars. For the fuel-cell vehicle today holds out the best hope of combining a rising demand for cars with a falling tolerance for pollution.
The car for a cool planet?
Just over 100 years after the first motor car with a petrol engine was made by Karl Benz in Germany, the man who now runs the Mercedes car business, Jurgen Hubbert, says: “The fuel cell is the most promising option for the future, and we are determined to be the first to bring it to market.” In practice, that means it will probably be possible to buy a fuel-cell car by 2004. DaimlerChrysler, the maker of Mercedes, and the Ford Motor Company were so impressed by the Ballard product that they bought roughly half the company and set up joint ventures to develop a whole engine and transmission system based around the Ballard core. Nearly every other car maker in the world subsequently scrambled to get on the bandwagon, using Ballard cells or, in some cases, furiously developing their own. “Powering the Future” tells the technical and human story of how the Ballard cell was born, thanks to the leadership of an idealistic former geologist Geoffrey Ballard. Bearer of both Canadian and American passports, he at one time ran a US government laboratory and also worked on alternative-energy projects before growing disillusioned with the bureaucratic world. He ended up in Vancouver leading a small team trying to develop lithium batteries to power electric cars while living off what his wife earned from running a pub. He and his associates eventually won a contract to develop proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEM) for the Canadian military. The soldiers had identified their potential as a lighter source of battlefield power than the batteries that they traditionally hauled into the field to make their communications equipment work.
Mr Ballard and his handful of engineers and chemists began with little knowledge of PEM cells. The first versions had been developed by General Electric for moonshots. But the large American company had lost interest and the patents had largely expired. Other forms of fuel cell were then thought to be more promising.
What the Ballard team brought to the story was engineering and passion. Using bits of plastic and sheets of graphite to make their fuel-cell stacks, they steadily increased the power output of the PEM cells. At the same time they cut costs by reducing the amount of expensive platinum needed in the electro-chemical process.
In early 1986 they showed off their work at a conference in Arizona, and the Americans suddenly woke up to the fact that they had been backing the wrong sort of fuel cell. The Ballard PEM cell made the electric motor car a real possibility, just as the tide of green protests against car smog was causing California to compel car makers to produce zero-emission vehicles.
Fuel-cell vehicles are still ten times as expensive as ordinary cars and there are problems building an infrastructure to supply hydrogen or hydrogen-bearing methanol, which is easier to handle. But mass production will cut costs, and even oil companies have now joined in the infrastructure work. The Ballard company’s chief executive, Kenyan-born Firoz Rasul, told Mr Motavalli that, “By 2030 I think that one in three, or even one in two of the cars on the road will be fuel-cell vehicles.” And that may well be more than mere wishful thinking.