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Fuel for tomorrow

POWERING THE FUTURE, THE BALLARD FUEL CELL AND THE RACE TO CHANGE THE WORLD·Tom Koppel·John Wiley & Sons Canada Limited·Etobicoke, Canada·1999·pp276

By H B Mathur
Published: Thursday 30 November 2000

-- the world faces two big challenges in the new millennium. One, to meet energy demand and two, combat rapidly worsening air quality. The solution to both the challenges lies in producing cleaner energy. Our main source of energy is oil, a limited and polluting resource. Humankind has consumed more of it in the last 50 years than in its history. Our vehicles continue to burn non-renewable petroleum fuels.

The cause for worry is not just the depletion of reserves of petroleum fuels. The air pollution caused by combustion in vehicular engines is as vexing a problem. Diesel exhaust has traces of over 40 substances that are listed by the California Air Resource Board as toxic contaminant and probable human carcinogens. In petroleum-fuelled vehicles, alkenes and benzene, together with polyaromatic compounds, add to the carcinogenic nature of vehicular emissions. Vehicular exhaust accounts for more than 65-70 per cent of air pollution in the metropolitan cities of India.

Aware of the gargantuan problem at hand, concerted efforts are being made world over to develop the technology for an alternative, renewable and clean fuel and hydrogen is fast emerging as one such alternative.
Gas for the future Hydrogen can become an excellent alternative fuel. It can be produced from water. Therefore, it is universally available. On combustion, it reacts with oxygen to form water again. A characteristic that allows us to call it a renewable and non-polluting fuel. About 160 years ago, William Grove, a British scientist, discovered how to generate electricity from hydrogen using a hydrogen fuel cell a kind of battery in which gaseous hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen reacts to form water, producing an electric current in the process. A thin, semi-permeable membrane keeps the two gases hydrogen and oxygen apart in the cell and allows the chemical reaction to proceed in a controlled manner. Grove did demonstrate the possibility of producing energy from the hydrogen cell but the technology remained impractical. The power generated was economically inefficient. Nobody, in that age of steam engines, imagined that vehicles one day would be powered by the same method.

Powering the Future tells the amazing story of how a tiny Canadian company, owned by Geoffrey Ballard and his colleagues, revolutionised the simple hydrogen cell mechanism. They brought back to humankind Grove's neglected invention, in a better, more usable form. The book, in the first few chapters, chronicles the events and describes how, from a humble beginning, in a makeshift laboratory, in a motel in the us, the company fought against stiff odds and intense competition.
After Grove William Grove in 1846 had constructed a bank of 50 cells, calling it the gaseous voltaic battery. Grove's invention languished in obscurity until 1889, when two scientists attempted to turn it into a practical device. They replaced the oxygen in the cell with air and the pure hydrogen with an impure industrial gas obtained from coal. A virtually solid electrolyte and platinum as catalyst were used to produce 1.5 watt of power from the cell. Commercial potential, though, remained a dream till the 1990s.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, attempts were made to build fuel cells that could convert coal or carbon directly to electricity. Though the experiments were not too successful then, they led to the creation of molten carbonate cells, one of the five leading fuel cell technologies in use for stationary power generation.

Meanwhile a hydrogen- oxygen cell, with an alkaline electrolyte, using the inexpensive nickel as catalyst had also been developed.The cell required preheating to at least 150 c before generating its top power of five kilowatt from a stack of 40 cells. It required pure hydrogen and air without any trace of carbondioxide. Around the same time, William Thomas Grubb built a fuel cell using a resin as electrolyte, in which the hydrogen ions migrated through the membrane and combined with oxygen ions on the cathode. The first proton exchange membrane ( pem ) cell was born. Then came the space race, which renewed interest in fuel cells for extraterrestrial applications. Pure oxygen and hydrogen were being carried on board rockets in any case and cost was not a consideration. In 1958, L W Nredrach, working with Grubb, hit on a better way of making the cell electrodes, by depositing the platinum catalyst on a fine metal mesh and bonding it directly to the polymer membrane. But, the pem cell became too expansive and bulky.

To reduce the cell weight for space flight, its operating pressure was further reduced while increasing its temperature. usa' s National Aeronautical and Space Administration decided to further develop the pem cell for the two-person Gemini orbital flights in mid-1960s. Gemini's fuel system consisited of six fuel cell stacks, with groups of three connected in parallel and built into a pair of cylindrical pressurised tanks. Each of these units weighed around 32 kilograms and produced one kilowatt of power. While the cells did their job they were cumbersome, requiring external bursts of extra hydrogen and oxygen. The cells became part of history when the Apollo programme went ahead using the alkaline fuel cell system.

The fuel cell also found favour with the military, in both, usa and Canada, as a source of power with neither noise nor exhaust emissions, making it hard for enemy to spot. Defence establishments required the technology for a wide range of mobile power generators for portable radar sets, for airfield lighting and for powering submarines as well. Canada's Defence Research Board, impressed by the performance of fuel cells in the Gemini and Apollo space programmes, called for bids to produce low cost polymer fuel cell, the type used in Gemini space programme.

Geoffrey Ballard, who had along with Kath Prater, a chemist and Paul Howard, an engineer, had formed a small company "Ultra Energy", and was developing batteries for electric cars, won the contract for developing the fuel cells

Powering the future gives a detailed account of how a tiny company, brought such a revolutionary and beneficial technology to the world. It is the story of a person who had a deeply ingrained stubborn streak that gave him the personal fortitude needed to stand up to difficulties with a sense of stoicism. Ballard, the book narrates, had vision and inspiration, and could create a culture of loyalty and dedication, attract and keep talented people, market and sell an underdog technology to the corporate giants.

The fuel cell bus
Under Ballard's dynamic leadership, his small company improved the pem fuel cell, made it smaller, cheaper, with fifty-fold increase in power output and managed to commercialise it in an astonishingly short time. Realising that the biggest obstacle to the fuel cell was scepticism, bordering on outright opposition from the oil industry and the automobile companies, Ballard put a fuel cell-powered vehicle out on the road and proved the big companies wrong. After, a great deal of research, by a dedicated technical team of six to eight people, the bus, with a total peak power of 120 kilowatt, a range of 160 kilometre and the capacity to carry 20 passengers was launched. The euphoria created turned the tide and the quiet, non-polluting bus captured public imagination and the automobile sector's attention. Perhaps, the most dramatic demonstration of Ballard's innovation was the repeated increase achieved in the pem cells' power density, calculated in terms of kilowatt per cubic foot.

Sacrificing ego, position and power in the company, Ballard decided to pass on the baton to the new generation of management that excelled in not only improving the technology, but also marketing it. Ballard's company ultimately forged impressive alliances with Shell, Jexaco, Daimler Chrysler, Ford, and the state of California in a major project to demonstrate the possibility of running 50 fuel cell cars and buses between 2000 and 2003.

Powering the future makes an interesting reading. The book is oriented towards personalities rather than the products or the technology. It is biographical in nature.

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