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The dream of fuel cells for cars lives on

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL dropped anchor in Vancouver last week, 11,000 kilometres into its 125-day, 30,000-kilometre around-the-world demonstration drive.

Mercedes-Benz

You remember hydrogen fuel cells, don't you?

If you're skeptical about the whole idea, we understand. After all, those making promises about fuel cells have been doing so for many years - and in some cases they appeared to be doing so largely to promote stock in emerging fuel-cell startup companies. Stock plays aside, back in 1999 I reported that both Daimler and Ford expected to bring fuel-cell cars to market by 2004 at the latest. Oops! Seven years have passed since that date with automotive destiny.

We have a new date now: 2015. Daimler claims that it will be field-testing next-generation fuel cells manufactured in Vancouver by 2012, with production at a new 2,000-square-metre plant set to begin in 2013 and commercial sales of somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 fuel cell systems commencing in 2015.

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To back up the hype, Daimler and Mercedes-Benz Canada announced a $50-million investment in a new facility in British Columbia, one dedicated to making fuel-cell cars a reality. When up and running, the plant will churn out fuel-cell stacks exclusively for vehicles. Here's the kicker: Mercedes says its fuel-cell stack will be comparably priced to a similar diesel engine. That would be a tremendous feat.

There's more. To prove the viability of fuel cells, Mercedes-Benz is in the middle of orchestrating a 125-day, 30,000-km, around-the-world demonstration drive. The F-CELL World Drive dropped anchor in Vancouver last week on Day 47, about 11,000 km into the trek. When done, three Mercedes B-Class wagons powered by fuel cells will have gone around the world, rolling through 14 countries and four continents.

"Fuel cells are technologically ready for long distance, everyday applications and are ready to conquer the world," said Herbert Kohler, Daimler's chief environmental officer.

If his words sound familiar, it's because others have said similar things before. Let's go back to the late 1990s, those heady days when Daimler was DaimlerChrylser and Ford was mostly a pickup and SUV company, and both companies were working with Burnaby, B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems. Ballard at that time was 15 per cent owned by Ford and 20 per cent owned by DaimlerChrysler and Ballard was a major player in developing automotive hydrogen fuel-cells systems.

The three partners repeatedly touted their plan to develop fuel-cell vehicles that deliver pollution-free performance equivalent to a gas-powered vehicle, with no convenience penalty and no harmful tailpipe emissions. That is, fuel-cell cars start, drive away and refuel just like any of today's cars with none of the environmental drawbacks.

Fast forward to today. Ballard is essentially out of the automotive fuel-cell business entirely. Sure, Ballard is part of the Automotive Fuel Cell Co-operation (AFCC), which was formed in February, 2008. It's a joint venture between Daimler (50.1 per cent), Ford (30) and Ballard (19.9). And it's this venture that developed the current Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL powering the round-the-world drive, not to mention the Citaro FuelCell Hybrid city bus.

But as AFCC's website points out, Ballard is only a financial investor in AFCC. When last I checked, Ballard's future remains all tied up with hydrogen fuel-cell-powered forklifts and fuel-cell stationary power plants. Ballard's once-grand scheme to put its fuel cells under the hoods of automobiles is over, and gone are all the executives who made so many grand promises and proclamations.

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Yet hope springs eternal at Daimler. The German company is going it alone with this new $50-million fuel-cell manufacturing facility and the investment is large enough to have attracted British Columbia's new premier, Christy Clark.

"By 2016, the hydrogen fuel cell sector is expected to have $18.5-billion in sales," said the premier at the announcement for the investment. Clark will soon fight her first election. Having $50-million dropped in the province's lap to fund so-called "clean" technology is a tidy little coup for the former education minister and one-time AM radio talk show host.

Kohler, for his part, argued that fuel-cell technology is mature, ready and highly suitable for long-distance driving. One big problem: there's really no place to fill up with hydrogen once your car runs dry. Canada does not have a single public hydrogen refuelling station, though there are a handful of private, experimental ones. Germany is home to a whopping 30 H2 filling stations. In the United States, what few H2 stations exist are clustered mostly in the Los Angeles area.

A second problem is cost, said Kohler. No one will say exactly how expensive a fuel-cell stack actually is or how it compares with a diesel or gasoline engine. But it's safe to say a fuel-cell stack would likely be worth at least 10 times that of a two-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine.

This, naturally, is where governments can play a role. You guessed it - subsidies. Andreas Trukenbrodt, CEO of AFCC, said the cost of fuel cells will come down as sales and manufacturing volumes rise and material costs drop. But - and this is a big but - he also said the fuel-cell business "needs funding and inventive programs" from governments if it ever hopes to become commercially viable.

"We're one day closer" to viable fuel cell cars, and "now it's up to governments," he said.

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As so often seems the case, those calling for a "green" revolution in cars and transportation want taxpayers to foot a big part of the bill. That's the way it was back in 1999 and that's the way it remains in 2011.

Tech specs

Mercedes-Benz B-Class Fuel Cell Car

Range: 400 km

Time to refuel with H2: Three minutes

Power output: 136 horsepower

Top speed: 170 km/h

Fuel economy: less than 1 kg of H2/100 km or the equivalent of 3.3 litres/100 km of a 2.0-litre internal combustion engine

Cold/Free start capability: down to -25C

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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