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Ex-CEO of Ballard: Hybrids Will Accelerate Fuel-Cell Commercialization

26 December 2005

Outgoing Ballard CEO Dennis Campbell shared some observations with Canada’s Globe and Mail on the prospects for fuel-cell vehicles as he packed up to head home to the US.

Campbell stepped down as President and CEO of the hydrogen fuel-cell maker in October. His exit followed the sale of Ballard’s German subsidiary and the company’s restructuring, and was a reflection of the much slower than anticipated commercialization of fuel cell technology. (Earlier post.)

Campbell, recruited three and one-half years ago, came to the company at a time when “a lot of people thought we were right at the cusp, at the inflection point of the hockey stick.

Faced with a countervailing reality, however, Campbell downsized the company, and then agreed with the Board to himself be “downsized”—a company still in a technology development stage doesn’t want to be paying a commercialization-stage CEO salary.

The main challenge for the company now is executing a technology road map. So, what’s important is not so much the CEO, but that we have a chief technology officer, Chris Guzy, whom I recruited from General Electric, and Charles Stone, who heads up research and development. These will be the key guys over the next five years.

—Dennis Campbell

In terms of the development of the market for fuel cell vehicles, Campbell still remains bullish in the long term: “...fundamentally, energy prices will continue to rise. I don’t think much can go wrong.

...[hybrids] will help accelerate [the commercialization of the fuel cell]. The architecture of the hybrid is the same as for the fuel cell. The only difference is that we take out the piston engine and put in the fuel cell. A lot of the core technologies needed to make fuel cells work are being developed today for hybrid applications. Also, it means the electrification of the automobile is becoming widely accepted. This is a fundamental transformation in the way cars are designed.

To be honest, the only thing that could change the game is if someone invented a battery that had a range of 400 miles and could be recharged in five minutes. You wouldn’t need a fuel cell. But people have been working on that for years, and while battery technology is improving, it’s not going to happen.

However, increasing efficiency of combustion engines combined with more aggressive hybrid architectures and batteries of increasing capability—i.e, a plug-in hybrid—could very well extend the economic viability of that platform well past the time threshold hoped for by the fuel-cell planners.

(A hat-tip to MetroMPG!)

December 26, 2005 in Fuel Cells, Hybrids, Hydrogen | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

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I disagree with the pessimistic outlook about the potential of battery powered vehicles. The vast majority of people could easily survive with an electric vehicle that had a range from 150-200 miles. Personally, I drive about 250 (12-14k miles a year) miles a week with my longest commute totalling about 65 miles in one day. I'd be happy to plug my car in every night if only somebody would market this. Thomas Edison and the Detroit Electric car were right. Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we had taken the electric vehicle path rather than combustion? Why, 100 years later we are not driving electric vehicles is a travesty. Shame on big oil.

I believe Mr. Campbell's most important quote was: "To be honest, the only thing that could change the game is if someone invented a battery that had a range of 400 miles and could be recharged in five minutes. You wouldn’t need a fuel cell. But people have been working on that for years, and while battery technology is improving, it’s not going to happen."
If that is the case, then why aren't we investing billions into battery research instead of pouring money down a HYDROGEN-only fuel cell rat hole? Toshiba is darn close to having high output lithium ion battery that can be recharged in a matter of minutes and their performance does not degrade significantly after thousands of deep cycles. The key to making electric and plug-in hybrid cars economic is bringing down the cost of batteries, increasing their life, and to a lesser extent, decreasing charge times. While grid electric energy is cheaper than gasoline, battery electric energy is not (yet). Do the math. Consider an electric car that uses 0.25 kWh/mile, a lithium ion battery costing $400/stored kWh of energy storage capacity, and lasting 1000 deep cycles. Battery cost per mile is $400 x 0.25 / 1000 = $0.10 per mile. Electricity adds another penny or two. This is no better than a 21 mpg gasoline car that burns $2.25/gallon gasoline.
Bottom line, I think battery technology will get cheaper and better faster than hydrogen fuel cells will. We are getting very close to the price-point where electric cars will overtake gasoline . Battery vehicles will get there way before hydrogen does.

"But people have been working on that for years, and while battery technology is improving, it’s not going to happen."
I think the man misspoke. He should have said: "But people have been working on that for years, and while HYDROGEN technology is improving, it’s not going to happen."

There will be no big increase in energy density of batteries. Even the nanotech research types working on battery technology will tell you that. Huge increases in power, density, to be sure, and much better lifetimes, but pretty much the same kWh / kg as current lithium batteries.

Using a fuel cell as the charging source for the batteries in a hybrid vehicle, instead of a combustion engine, makes perfectly good sense--if it can be done economically. But if that's going to happen, I'd put my bets on high temperature SOFC / combustion turbines burning hydrocarbon fuels, rather than the low temperature hydrogen fuel cells that Ballard is working on.

I know that the "conventional wisdom" is that you can't possibly use a fuel cell that operates at 800 - 1000 C in an automobile. I say why not? We've got very good high-temperature insulation technology; anyone poking around under the hood would never have to know that there was a red hod fuel cell core operating inside that funny metal box.

Sure, it would take a while to come up to operating temperature, but that's the beauty of the robust hybrid design. You'd have at least 20 miles of range on batteries alone, and you wouldn't turn the fuel cells on unless you expected to go farther than that. They could take their time heating up, and would then stay on until the trip was over and the batteries fully recharged. They'd stay on, for example, while the car was sitting in a store's parking lot, as long as the battery was still charging.

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