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Firm powers research on low-pollution cars

Mercedes fuel cell vehicle October 27, 1997
Web posted at: 7:02 p.m. EST (0002 GMT)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (CNN) -- A Canadian company is at the wheel for an exciting spin into the 21st century.

Ballard Power Systems, a leader in research that could help cut motor vehicle emissions, is touting the development of a fuel cell engine as the answer to the pollution caused by cars, trucks and buses.

"We would like to be the Intel of the power-generation business," said Mossadiq Umadely, chief financial officer of the Vancouver-based firm.

CNN's Dick Wilson reports
icon 2 min., 40 sec. VXtreme streaming video

Fuel cell technology uses an electro-chemical process that converts hydrogen and oxygen into energy.

The fuel cell itself runs on external fuel. It is at its cleanest when using pure hydrogen. The cell also works with hydrogen-rich fuels like methanol, natural gas or gasoline.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, the fuel cell can achieve double the fuel economy of current automobiles, cutting emissions of greenhouse gases in half.

Drivers of a gasoline-fueled fuel cell car could still pull in for a fill-up. But they would fill up far less often and create less pollution than today's combustion engines.

Eight of the world's top 10 automakers are working with Ballard. Daimler-Benz of Germany just purchased 25 percent of the company. Ballard has a deal with Daimler-Benz to develop fuel cell technology jointly and work on a new electric car.

The carmaker estimates that cars powered by fuel cells will be in dealer showrooms possibly by the middle of the next decade.

Fuel cell

In Chicago, a bus built by Ballard that is powered with fuel cells provides a glimpse of the future. To power the electric motor on the bus, dozens of fuel cells are stacked together.

While it rides like a normal bus, the Chicago vehicle is quieter. Thanks to hydrogen tanks, the only emission from the engine is water vapor.

While the bus costs four times as much to build as a diesel bus, in the long run it could be cheaper to operate because of fuel savings.

Chrysler Corp. has said costs would have to be cut drastically for the engine to compete with current cars. Even mass-produced, the technology would cost $30,000 per car now compared with $3,000 for conventional cars.

"What we are doing right now is working with alternative materials and different manufacturing processes to drive the cost down so it is competitive with internal combustion engines," said Firoz Rasul, Ballard chief executive officer.

Correspondent Dick Wilson and Reuters contributed to this report.

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