SFU Gives Ballard Fuel-Cells a Boost

Erik Kjeang, director of SFU’s Fuel Cell Research Lab, is the leading the project which will allow scientists “see” directly inside fuel cells.

Feds give Simon Fraser researchers $3.39 million to help make Ballard’s fuel-cell buses more competitive

Burnaby-based fuel cell maker Ballard Power Systems Inc. has a new plan. Fueled by $3.39-million in federal funding from Automotive Partnership Canada (APC), the company has linked up with Simon Fraser University on a quest to make fuel-cell-powered buses competitive with diesel hybrids by 2015.

Years of empty promises of profit led to a restructuring and sale of the company’s automotive assets in 2007 and a fall out of the spotlight, yet the firm continued to develop fuel cells for buses and forklifts and provide engineering services to auto customers — including a recent contract with Volkswagen, which Ballard estimates will be worth between $60 million and $100 million over the next four years.

“We are certainly on a path to profitability,” Ballard spokesman Guy McAree told BCBusiness in an email. “We expect the project at SFU to contribute to extended product life, increased product durability and reduced product cost.”

The last factor is key if fuel cell modules are ever to compete with diesel engines. Whistler’s entire bus fleet is powered by fuel cells in pilot project that runs through 2014 and while it has demonstrated the technology works across a wide range of temperatures and topographies, at $1.5 million per bus, diesel is still king.

Erik Kjeang, director of SFU’s Fuel Cell Research Laboratory and custodian of the APC cash (which he’s looking swell to $6.5 million over four years via other partnerships) plans to dethrone the fossil fuel status quo. Step one: buying a powerful scanner to enable a direct line of sight into working fuel cells, a non-destructive process similar to medical CT imaging and one that’s yet to be seen in Canada.

“Traditionally we’ve been able to characterize fuel cells ex situ, where you take things apart, you may even cut it up into pieces and study them,” Kjeang told BCBusiness on the phone from his hotel room at the Union Square Hilton in San Francisco, where he was attending a meeting of The Electrochemical Society. “What this kind of equipment enables is to keep the fuel cell in its original form and study the internal components in their right environment.”

The end goal is as simple as it is ambitious: make fuel cells go mainstream and make greenhouse gas emissions a thing of the past for the country’s struggling automotive sector.

“It’s one of our few zero-emission drivetrains for vehicles,” Kjeang said. “Fuel cell buses are becoming more common in cities around the world. I’d like to see fuel cell cars as well becoming available to regular consumers.”