Electric power proves a costly turn on
BALLARD Power Systems hasn't turned a profit in 10 years, but the small Canadian firm's pioneering efforts in fuel cell technology is attracting attention and investment from the world's largest car manufacturers.
German manufacturer Daimler-Benz announced recently it was investing C$400-million (about R1,36-billion) in Ballard technology, which aims to generate non-polluting energy in power plants and cars.
The deal, under which the German group will take a 25% stake in Ballard, will enable the Vancouver-based group to mass produce its fuel cells for cars.
"They are doing all the right things and they have the right partners. This gives them the muscle to get this technology to market and get costs down," an analyst said.
Sparking the excitement are Ballard's fuel cells - electrochemical devices that convert methanol, natural gas or hydrogen into usable electricity without combustion, generating water vapour as exhaust.
The technology was used in the US Gemini space programme, but it was considered too inefficient and expensive to be commercially viable.
But Geoffery Ballard knew the military was searching for a clean, quiet power source. He and his team dedicated themselves to refining fuel cell technology, producing prototype fuel cell powered buses and co-operating with Daimler-Benz to build an electric car.
Ballard's fuel cells can run on pure hydrogen or hydrogen derived from natural gas or methanol, the most likely energy source for cars.
Since beginning its fuel cell research in 1982, it has secured 185 patents, 10 of which place the company five years ahead of competitors.
Ballard has now turned its attention toward reducing production costs, which remain the biggest obstacle to mass producing electric vehicles, said Mossadiq Umedaly, the company's vice-president and chief financial officer.
The world's top auto makers now face the decision whether to buy or to develop fuel cell technology. Most have purchased Ballard's cells to test in their electric vehicles. The deal with Daimler-Benz was a significant milestone, but the group does not expect to be profitable until Ballard-powered cars are produced en masse - something which is at least 10 years away.
Electric vehicles are likely to be successful in niche markets such as California, which has stringent clean-air legislation. Top of page