Ballard Power System is the world leader in developing and commercializing proton exchange membrane fuel cell power systems. At the heart of this corporation is the Ballard Fuel Cell, a propriety zero-emission engine that converts natural gas, methanol, or hydrogen fuel directly into electricity without combustion. Over the last several years, many large corporations including Daimler-Benz, Chrysler, Honda, General Motors, Nissan, Hitachi, Volkswagen, Volvo, and GPU International have invested large amounts of money into the production of the Ballard Fuel Cell in an attempt to create stationary electric power plants, and zero-emission vehicles.
History of the Fuel Cell: The fuel cell was first developed in the 1960’s by General Electric for NASA. It was considered as a definite possibility for an alternative power source for space program, but the cost and size of the fuel cell stacks were tremendous. By 1983, Geoff Ballard and a small team of physicists were able to develop the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) to produce nearly ten times as much energy, while being only a fraction of the size.
How the PEM Fuel Cell Works: A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity silently, without combustion. Hydrogen fuel, which is one of the most abundant chemicals in the universe, and oxygen from the air are electrochemically combined in the fuel cell to produce electricity. Heat and pure water vapour are the only by-products of the fuel cell.
The Ballard Fuel Cell is made up of two electrodes, the anode and the cathode, separated by a polymer membrane electrolyte. Both the anode and the cathode are coated in a thin layer of platinum catalyst. At the anode, hydrogen fuel is changed into free electrons and protons. The free electrons are sent in the form of usable electric current through an external circuit. The remaining protons are sent through the membrane electrolyte to the cathode where they combine with oxygen and the electrons from the external circuit to form pure water and heat. Fuel cells are placed into a fuel cell stack to provide the amount of energy required. Each fuel cell produces roughly 0.7 of a watt of electricity.
The Ballard Fuel Cell generates power much differently than the internal combustion engine and the storage battery, which are the two most common forms of power found in our society. The fuel cell has the advantages of both, without the problems of either.
Internal combustion engines work by burning fuel to create heat, which is then converted into mechanical energy which runs the car. This conversion of energy is extremely ineffective because a large amount of heat is lost, and energy is lost because of friction. Ballard Fuel Cells, on the other hand, convert fuel directly into electricity, making them two or three times more effective than the obsolete internal combustion engine. Fuel cells use fuel tanks very similar to the ones found on internal combustion engines, and will operate continuously as long as hydrogen and pure oxygen are supplied. Unlike the internal combustion engine, however, fuel cells do not burn fuel and therefor do not produce any harmful pollutants.
The second most commonly used form of producer of energy is the battery. Batteries store energy, and do not create power. They consume themselves to create power, unlike the fuel cell or internal combustion engine which consume fuels to create power. Battery electrodes store the fuel producing electricity electrochemically as the battery discharges consuming its electrodes. Batteries and fuel cells are both electrochemical (combustion is not used) devices that have high efficiencies, are very quiet, and do not pollute the environment. The only problem with batteries is that they only store, and do not produce power. Batteries rely on central power plants such as Duracell or Energizer to recharge them, therefor batteries shift the pollution, efficiency and cost problems to the central power plants.
In my opinion, fuel cells are the ultimate power provider. The Ballard Fuel cell is clean, quiet, efficient, and will operate continuously as long as fuel is supplied, and can run on many different types of fuels including natural gas, methanol, gasoline, and hydrogen. Fuel cells contain enough power to run a car, as well as being easy to refuel. Many branch companies of Ballard are currently working on a hydrogen refueling system which could be used at home, eradicating the need for expensive, crowded gas stations. It is not yet determined whether these refueling systems will be released, but Ballard has already gotten the support of such gas companies as Shell, Arco, British Propane, and many others, and by the year 2003, nearly all gas stations will be equipped with hydrogen refueling centres.
Transportation Applications: Over the last six years, Ballard has adapted its fuel cells for transit bus engines in four phases. In the first phase, which was completed in 1993, Ballard developed and demonstrated a 125 HP fuel cell engine in a 32-foot transit bus. This was the world’s first zero-emissions vehicle powered by fuel cells. Over the last six years, it has proven itself to be a reliable, smooth performing vehicle, that could easily be used on a large scale.
Phase two consisted of the construction of 275 HP, 40-foot long transit bus. This prototype was the foundation for the six zero-emission buses which are running today. Currently, this bus in on display in Burnaby, and is open to the public. Phase 3 consisted of building a demonstration fleet which would introduce the public to the possibilities of the fuel cell. Today, there are three zero-emission buses running in Coquitlam, and three running in Chicago. Phase 4, which will be completed between the years 2002 and 2006, consists of mass producing these vehicles. Ballard Corporations is completely positive that after these buses are used on a larger scale, the days of the internal combustion engine will be over.
In May 1997, Daimler-Benz released the NEBUS (New Electric Bus), which used an advanced Ballard Fuel Cell as the power source. The NEBUS has a power efficiency of 55 percent, which is roughly 15 percent better than its predecessor, the internal combustion engine. The NEBUS’ fuel cell engine supplies 190 kilowatts to the vehicle system, which is enough power to run all accessories which are currently used on BC Transit buses, as well as giving it a top speed of 80 kilometers per hour. Most importantly, however, the bus produces no harmful emissions, and is extremely quiet.