Olympic buses power the future

New Olympic buses carry fuel cells which are not only quieter and less polluting than internal combustion or diesel engines, but also produce usable energy more efficiently.

The engines of the buses ferrying spectators at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver are powered by fuel cells.
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On Canada's west coast, a fleet of pristine white buses sporting the livery of BC Transit, the local public transport company, whisks visitors to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games from the ice-hockey rink in downtown Vancouver to the ski slopes of Whistler Mountain. The two dozen or so buses are fuelled by hydrogen so they emit only water vapour, not carbon dioxide, in their exhaust.

Their engines are powered by fuel cells that combine hydrogen with oxygen from air to produce electricity and water. The fuel cells are not only quieter and less polluting than internal combustion or diesel engines, they also produce usable energy more efficiently. "This is a real, live demonstration of green technology at work," said Paul Cass, the vice president of operations for Canada's Ballard Power Systems, which had been developing fuel-cell buses since 1991 and believed global demand for hydrogen-powered vehicles was about to pick up.

It has been a long wait. Fuel-cell technology, developed in the 1960s for the US space programme, is still not ready for the mainstream transport sector, most experts say. "There has been progress in the technology for cars and buses, but costs have not come down to the point where it can address the mass market," Dr Nigel Brandon, the head of the Energy Futures Laboratory at the University of London's Imperial College, said last month.

"My own personal view is that the toughest market to crack is the automotive market." Mr Cass conceded that fuel-cell buses were not yet cost competitive with diesel-electric hybrids, let alone with conventional diesel-powered vehicles, but they could become so within two or three years. He said the Olympics demonstration would help to prove that "fuel-cell technology is not a scientific experiment, it's a commercial reality".

Ballard expects orders for fuel-cell buses to help the company boost its revenues by 35 per cent this year, after they fell 22 per cent last year to US$46.7 million (Dh171.5m). To reduce costs by about 30 per cent, the company restructured its operations last spring and summer, and saw its revenues rebound by the end of last year. Dr Brandon was sceptical but said Ballard had advanced fuel-cell technology by developing cells that could operate at much lower temperatures, of about 100°C, than earlier designs.

Even so, they require expensive materials such as special polymers and catalysts. Some of the systems engineering to develop the cells is also costly. Dr Brandon said the most successful fuel-cell application in the transport market to date was a German-developed battery charger for recreational vehicles, such as campers, that recharged batteries silently using the liquid fuel methanol as a source of hydrogen. Cutting out the noise and pollution of a diesel generator on camping trips could justify the higher costs.

Other successful fuel-cell applications include backup power systems for telecommunications, especially in remote locations and countries with unreliable electricity supplies. Some emerging economies are in the middle of telecommunications booms, creating a pressing need for new power delivery systems. "Fuel cells are commercial but still in niche applications," said Dr Brandon, who is also the chief scientific adviser and co-founder of the UK company Ceres Power.

Ceres is developing a more mundane product than a futuristic vehicle engine. Its management team sees commercial potential in a home boiler that uses natural gas and fuel cells to produce domestic hot water supplies with less wasted energy. That could attract buyers by lowering users' electricity bills. "It's an energy-efficiency diversification that has the potential to make a contribution quickly" to lower carbon emissions, Dr Brandon said.

He is also involved in a more exotic research project to develop a new way to split hydrogen from water molecules, using sunlight and microscopic algae. Developing a hydrogen supply that does not involve natural gas feedstock or the energy-intensive process of passing electricity through water is another big goal for fuel-cell researchers. In Abu Dhabi recently for the World Future Energy Summit, Dr Brandon said the capital should think about using the hydrogen it expected to produce as part of a proposed integrated clean electricity and carbon capture and storage development to power fuel cells.

"If Abu Dhabi is producing hydrogen, it makes sense to consider other uses than burning it to spin a turbine in a conventional power plant, which is the least energy-efficient use," he said. Fuel cells could be integrated with the solar projects the emirate is also developing to provide a complementary power source, Dr Brandon suggested. tcarlisle@thenational.ae