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Ballard Partners with Universities to Make Fuel Cell Buses a Commercial Reality

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Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems Inc. has launched a major research and commercialization project, with help from Automotive Partnership Canada (APC), that is on track to make fuel cell-powered buses competitive with diesel hybrids by 2015.

It would represent a breakthrough in driving down the cost of bus fuel cells, and improving their durability and reliability. Ballard’s fuel cell modules, which provide propulsion power, have already been cost-reduced significantly in recent years. This has contributed to a reduction in the capital cost of each fuel cell bus—from $3 million in 2000 to about $1.5 million today—in limited volumes.

The new collaboration with Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria—soon to be Ballard’s largest R&D program—will contribute to the development of a next generation fuel cell module that would help reduce the price of each transit bus to between $750,000 and $1 million. This will make them cost competitive with diesel hybrid buses on a lifecycle-cost basis, says Jeff Grant, a business development manager at Ballard.

“This project is about getting our seventh generation product to commercial readiness and full production within four years,” says Grant. “It will drive down our costs and help us to win competitive solicitations internationally.”

The new technology not only means more affordable fuel cell buses for customers, and significantly fewer CO2 emissions, it will also reduce Ballard’s costs. The company’s current FCvelocity-HD6 (6th generation Heavy Duty) bus module is offered with a warranty of five years or 12,000 hours. Ballard’s goal is to extend the module’s longevity to at least 20,000 hours, comparable to the life of a diesel engine.

“Initial development on the HD7 was done at Ballard, but it lacks the in-house capacity for the applied research required to further extend the lifetime of the product while reducing costs,” says Shanna Knights, Ballard’s manager on the project.

“In order to improve the durability of the fuel cell module and be able to predict its longevity, first we need to understand the degradation mechanisms that take place when it’s in operation under real world transit bus conditions,” she explains. “SFU and UVic have the bandwidth, the equipment and people to help us develop those technical models so we can understand what’s happening at a fundamental level.”

The main issue—one that Ballard has been working on for more than 15 years—is the durability of the Proton Exchange Membrane, a thin polymer film that separates the electrodes in a fuel cell. The project will use Simon Fraser University’s advanced materials lab in Burnaby and its mechatronics lab in Surrey, as well as expertise at the University of Victoria, to conduct sophisticated modelling, analysis and testing to improve the membrane’s stability, and the ability to accurately predict the product’s lifetime over several years of service.

“We’re not just refining a current product through this research, we’re changing the fundamentals and proving them,” says Erik Kjeang, the academic lead on the project at Simon Fraser University’s School of Engineering Science.

Dr. Kjeang will be recruiting eight top postdoctoral fellows from across Canada and internationally to work with undergraduate and graduate students, both on campus and at Ballard’s research facility.

“We’ll be hiring over 30 people for this project,” says Dr. Kjeang. “I’m very excited to be part of a program that will help strengthen Canada’s competitive edge in automotive clean energy technology, train tomorrow’s leaders in this field, and reduce harmful emissions for generations to come.”

The APC awarded more than $4 million to the $11.9-million project, with Ballard contributing the balance in personnel, equipment and other resources. Ballard plans to begin commercial production of the new fuel cell module by 2015.