Canadian Plastics

Can The Fuel Cell Save the West?

Always a region at the edge; one which has survived on the blessing of natural resources and the pluck of home-grown entrepreneurs, British Columbia has nudged even nearer to the crevasse in recent ye...

June 1, 2003   Canadian Plastics



Always a region at the edge; one which has survived on the blessing of natural resources and the pluck of home-grown entrepreneurs, British Columbia has nudged even nearer to the crevasse in recent years. Recent Statistics Canada data shows the province’s average per capita income, relative to the rest of the country, has declined 7% in the last six years. This decline in living standard is a result of a combination of factors, not the least being the provincial NDP government’s ten-year binge of taxing, spending and regulating, which has had the net effect of producing a major economic hangover.

Now, in the dim, queasy haze of the morning after, one thing is clear: Not everyone in B.C. can make a living on the provincial tree farm.

As I learned on my trip west (see Special Report, p. 14), the province’s plastics executives and employees have shown remarkable skill and determination to juggle product lines and find new customers around the globe. Still, for some companies this is a game of ever-diminishing returns. As residents are fond of pointing out, B.C., unlike Ontario with its automotive industry, lacks a core manufacturing base. Why not think big, one manager mused, and turn B.C. into the global hub of fuel cell development and manufacturing once the technology becomes fully commercial?

The idea is not far-fetched. Microsoft has infused billions into the economy of Washington state. Silicon Valley did not exist before Intel came along. Could Ballard Power Systems some day pull B.C.’s economy up by the bootstraps, transforming the province into the world’s “hydrogen hub”?

Why not? Vancouver-based Ballard has led the way in the development and commercialization of fuel cell technology. Honda and a few other automotive companies have already introduced commercial hybrid fuel-cell vehicles. But there are a few hurdles remaining before this technology becomes large-scale, lending it the clout to transform the economy of an entire region.

As you may know, a fuel cell works by passing hydrogen over an electrode. With the help of a catalyst, an electron is spilt from the hydrogen, generating a proton and an electrical current. The proton passes through a membrane and unites with oxygen and the electron to form water. This process is described as a Proton Membrane Exchange (PEM) fuel cell.

One problem: No significant natural source of hydrogen exists, so it has to be produced. Also, hydrogen is more combustible and takes up more volume than gas, so it poses distribution problems.

Another difficulty: cost. Presently the cost per kilowatt in a PEM fuel cell is estimated to be about $3,500 in production quantities. By contrast the fuel to power internal combustion engines costs about $50 a kilowatt. Thus, to be competitive with gas used in an internal combustion powered car, the cost per kW of a PEM fuel cell has to be reduced by a factor of about 40.

Because of these limitations, the first large-scale commercial applications of PEM fuel cells will be as power backup systems in laptops and cell phones. We should see these on the market in a few years.

How many jobs would be created by commercial fuel-cell manufacturing operation? Potentially, quite a few. A typical PEM fuel cell is composed of PEM bi-polar plates, seals, gaskets, pumps and other components, many of which are made of composite or plastic materials. These components could be manufactured and assembled anywhere of course, but as the home base of the world leader in fuel cell technology, Vancouver would seem to be the logical choice. It’s a great opportunity, and provincial politicians, trade groups and industry should do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t slip away.

Michael LeGault, editor e-mail: mlegault@canplastics.com


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