Hydrogenics: Sailing in Good Company
By Bill Moore
Modern sailboats have a problem. Like their motor yacht counterparts, they need electric power. And until now that meant either relying on short-lived batteries or noisy, smelly, polluting diesel generators; a solution totally at odds with the clean, windblown nature of the sport.
The advent of the low-power hydrogen fuel cell may just have solved that problem; at least that is what HaveBlue LLC and Canadian-based Hydrogenics in Mississauga, Ontario are hoping. Both companies, along with TexacoOvonics, have teamed up to develop a pollution-free power plant for sailboats that will not only provide electrical power, but also propulsion for maneuvering in harbor.
But HaveBlue's demonstration is only one of a number in which Hydrogenics is participating. Another is John Deere's fuel cell-powered Gator program, as well as an APU application for heavy commercial trucks. To learn more about the company, its products and its ambitions, EV World talked to Boyd Taylor, the company's vice president for business development. What follows is a synopsis of our 45-minute-long telephone conversation, the entirety of which EV World Premium subscribers can listen to in MP3 audio.
As you might expect, while I wanted to learn more about Hydrogenics various demonstration programs, like HaveBlue, Taylor wanted to give me his standard corporate pitch, but even so he revealed interesting nuggets of information about the company's relationship with General Motors and its parallel product line of hydrogen electrolyzers, as well as his personal views on the environment and the war in Iraq.
In talking about the power needs of your typical bluewater or coastal sailing yacht -- as opposed to small day sailers -- Taylor said that most owners use less than $50 of fuel in a normal season. However, unless they are tied up to a dock where electric power is available, they have to rely on two or three deep cycle marine batteries for power and/or a diesel genset, especially if they are moored out in the harbor or anchored off the coast. Running a diesel genset is antithetical of the whole philosophy of why owners usually buy sailboats, which can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Taylor --- and HaveBlue's Craig Schmitman -- believe that larger sailboat owners may be willing to pay extra for a quiet, clean, renewable power source on their vessels. He thinks that if owners can store enough hydrogen onboard -- and that's part of the reason for incorporating TexacoOvonic's metal hydride hydrogen storage tanks (the other reason is fire safety) -- to give them sufficient operating range, that this technology will be a "game changer" in the marine power industry. He also noted that most boats only need 1-2 kW of electric power or what he calls 'house loads" to run their lights, communication and navigation systems.
It is also his view that you won't see fuel cells in motor yachts simply because of the hydrogen storage problem. You can't store enough to give the vessel sufficient range. Here diesel will continue to predominate, though ecologically-conscious owners are starting to look seriously at biodiesel as an alternative.
Although Hydrogenics, which employes some 270 employees, does have larger fuel cell stack designs "on the drawing board," its focus will continue to be in the low-power range. Its most powerful stack generates 20kW of electricity and it has plans to top out at 60kW. But for now it is happy to work in the 500 Watt to 10kW power range, which is ideal for standby applications and auxillary power modules, not to mention transportation solutions like the X/V1 fuel cell marine engine or the John Deere Gator. Taylor thinks that smaller units will be easier to sell initially, meaning mass production can be ramped up sooner with corresponding price drops.
Hydrogenics is also working with Purolator Courier on a fuel cell hybrid delivery van. Because such vans have a heavy "stop-and-go" duty cycle with lots of idle time, the van doesn't need a high power fuel cell stack. The van under development will use a 60-65kW stack in combination with either batteries or ultracapacitors.
Taylor pointed out that conventional delivery vans operate much of their duty cycle at inefficient and high-polluting low temperatures and rpms. The Purolator project, which is slated to begin tests later this year, also incorporates on-site hydrogen refueling from a Hydrogenics electrolyzer, the company's second major product line.
From Taylor's perspective, the Purolator One vehicle fits neatly into Hydrogenics business strategy. Not only does it allow for what he calls, "modularity" -- meaning, stacks can be combined for greater power output -- but it also involves, unlike the HaveBlue marine engine, a "captive fleet." Purolator vans return to a central point at the end of the day, where they are serviced and refueled, making hydrogen production and dispensation far easier. Natural gas vehicles have pursued a similar strategy with some success, especially in city transit buses.
Parallel PEM/Electrolyzer Development
When the company was founded some eight to nine years ago by a pair of University of Toronto grad students, they decided that co-develop PEM fuel cell stacks and hydrogen electrolyzers because the two systems are so closely related. The same engineers developing the proton exchange membranes for the fuel cell could also work on the electrolyzer.
Like many fuel cell and hydrogen technology developers, the principals behind Hydrogenics are driven by twin concerns for the environment and the eventual depletion of fossil fuels. Taylor and his associates see a time in the future when petroleum will have to be replaced with another "fuel" and they believe that fuel will be hydrogen electrolyzed from water using various renewable energy sources including wind and solar; and maybe someday "safe" nuclear energy.
A Clean Energy Cult
I asked Taylor why Canada appears to be the focus of so much fuel cell development. He replied that it probably has a lot to do with the entire nation's interest in energy from its rich oil, natural gas and tar sand deposits in Alberta to its vast hydroelectric resources. He also credits the Canadian government and its core of knowledgeable fuel cell experts who were able to winnow out the good proposals from the bad, funding those that had the greatest chance of succeeding.
"I give the Canadian civil service most of the credit," he stated.
Hydrogenics grew out of the research efforts of two University of Toronto Phd candidates, Pierre Rivard and Joseph Cargnelli, who were working on fuel cells for their dissertations. Taylor, himself an engineer, had previously done international sales and run his own company for nine years.
When the company was formed in the early 1990's, the founders originally saw applications in the space industry, where the technology got its start, and in remote power systems. From the outset, the belief was that this power source was so unique that there had to be niche applications where it could succeed.
"The three of us, as engineers, really wanted to work in the environmental field," Taylor emphasized, adding that, in a way, the company has attracted a "cult" of other engineers and followers who believe in the need for clean, renewable energy and the role of hydrogen fuel cells.
Will of the World Needed
Taylor knows that the technology can develop slowly or rapidly, it all depends on the "will of the world" to make it happen. He recalled the difference between the diesel engine genset in his sailboat and the HaveBlue X/V1 fuel cell. The one is primitive, inefficient and polluting, while the other is solid state, up to 50% efficient and non-polluting.
"We've got a lot of money to be spent on it yet, but it can be done. I think that's what's driving us here."
Part of that money came from General Motors, who now owns about 20% equity in Hydrogenics, down from the original 24% due to some additional money raised through a subsequent stock offering.
Taylor told EV World that the company's relationship with GM is excellent. He categorized it as a secondary, support role because GM's own fuel cell program is "huge." What Hydrogenics is learning from GM's high-power, high-pressure stack work, it is applying to its own low-power niche products and projects. He added that GM should be praised for selling governments around the world on the potential of fuel cells, despite the fact that the fueling infrastructure isn't there nor are the volumes sufficient to make fuel cells competitive with the IC engine.
The Devil's In the Details
Returning to electrolyzers, I asked Taylor what the efficiency of these units are. He said that at present they are about 70 percent efficient, meaning that for every 100 units of energy put in, 30 are lost due to system inefficiencies. He added that the larger the electrolyzer the more efficient it is, with a potential loss of only about 20 percent. By his calculation -- which is a best case one since fuel cells aren't quite at 40% efficiency yet -- the net energy reaching the wheels is 35 percent (70% wind or solar-powered electrolyzer efficiency divided by 50% fuel cell efficiency).
He admitted that if batteries could store high-density levels of energy and be "refueled" in minutes, we wouldn't need fuel cells, which are, in fact, a type of "refuelable" battery. Instead, he contends they can only store relatively small amounts of energy and they take hours to refuel instead of minutes.
By contrast, a hydrogen-powered fuel cell can offer hundreds of miles of range (the best at the moment is Toyota with about a 180 miles range) and be fueled as quickly as a gasoline engine car. Even better, we don't have to fight wars to get oil from the Middle East or create smog and air pollution or dump millions of tons of climate-alternating CO2 into the atmosphere.
"The beauty of going to hydrogen is that it allows you to use clean forms of energy," Taylor stated, noting that "God forbid" we can even derive it from ground-up coal, provided the carbon dioxide is sequestered. His point is, you can use both renewable and fossil fuel energy sources to make hydrogen, allowing for a much more diverse set of domestic energy pathways over which to transition to a hydrogen economy.
Interestingly, although Hydrogenics makes electrolyzers, it also buys tube trailer-loads of hydrogen, presumably for test purposes. I asked Taylor what the cost per kilogram of electrolyzer-derived H2 was, but he deflected the question by saying he didn't have the exact number with him. Instead he did say that the company can make it cheaper than buying it in bulk in tube trailers, which seems a bit of a contradiction to me. If it's cheaper to make it by electrolysis -- and the company pays 7 cents a kilowatt in Ontario where most of the power comes from hydroelectric dams -- then why bother to buy it? Perhaps the issue is one of storage and volume. When they need lots of hydrogen, its more convenient to use what's stored in the tube trailer.
Hydrogenics vision of our energy future is two major forms of energy carriers: electricity and hydrogen. Although initially most hydrogen will be made from natural gas, the company eventually sees water-electrolyzed H2 as how we'll fuel our mobility systems. This will obviate any need to import huge amounts of oil from overseas with all the environmental and national security issues associated with our current energy system.
Instead, the keyword will be "decentralization" where 'boxes," as he refers to them, will convert water into H2 or reformed natural gas into hydrogen at nearby service stations. He also speculates that in parts of the world where natural gas is abundant that is may make sense to convert it into methanol -- a liquid fuel -- for transport to distant markets. The methanol can then be used directly by future fuel cells or reformed into hydrogen, similar to what is already being done in parts of Southeast Asia.
A Cloudy Crystal Ball
I asked Taylor which of their two main product lines -- fuel cells and electrolyzers -- he thought would provide the company with its strongest future growth. His feeling was that it will be fuel cells, for a couple of reasons. First he thinks that at some point, someone is going to come up with a breakthrough hydrogen production system that will make hydrogen cheap and abundant, in which case, the electrolyzer business will become obsolete, though he didn't offer any examples. Secondly, he said that as the giant oil and gas companies get into the hydrogen business, he doesn't want to see Hydrogenics in competition with them. They are simply too big and powerful to take on. It's better to work with them, them against him, is what he was saying.
He sees most hydrogen refueling taking place at current standing gasoline/petrol stations rather than at home, though there will be some of that, as well.
So, can I buy an electrolyzer from Hydrogenics today? No, was Taylor's reply. The company isn't interested in selling into the retail market. Instead, for now, it is interested only in developing partnerships with firms like John Deere, Purolator and HaveBlue. In his view, the technology isn't mature enough for it to be placed in the hands of the average homeowner or consumer. Hydrogenics prefers to develop what it sees as long-term relationships with companies that will turn its technology into marketable products in the future.
He pointed out that in 2003 the company sold some $26US million worth of test stations, electrolyzer and fuel cells, so the company's go-steady-go-slow strategy appears to be paying off.
"At this point of the game, we have to have successes," he stated.
It's Taylor's view that as we start to deplete petroleum, the world is going to have to shift to other, often heavier forms of fossil fuels. An example are the tar sands of Canada, which some say rival the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Taylor claimed that it takes large amounts of hydrogen, derived from natural gas, to make gasoline out of these tar sands. At some point, he believes, we're going to say, Why use the hydrogen in this way? Use not use it directly in fuel cells, instead?
Another driving factor is the real cost of oil, which isn't the price most Americans and Canadians pay today. He said if you factor in the cost of the war in Iraq and elsewhere -- not to mention the environmental costs -- for example, the real costs of fossil fuels are significantly higher.
In his view, we simply have no alternative but to move towards a synthetic chemical fuel called hydrogen.
But when it comes to the issue of hydrogen storage, he admits this is a problem, at least for automotive applications where people expect to drive hundreds of miles before having to refuel. It isn't a problem, though, for niche applications like forklifts, which is yet another demonstration in which the company is involved. Here a forklift can take on 2 kilograms of H2 and run for four or five hours and then be fueled over a lunch break.
"There are a whole bunch of applications in society where we can work with the density of hydrogen as it is, " he commented.
Eventually, he sees nano technology making possible the necessary energy density for longer range travel or operating times. He also agreed that compressing hydrogen or even using metal hydrides to get sufficient density isn't very elegant.
Taylor concluded by saying that Hydrogenics business plan is to develop product niches that work with current technology rather than waiting for unexpected breakthroughs.
Editor's Note: This synopsis covers the high points of our discussion, but we recommend that you listen to the entire interview to get a full sense of who Hydrogenics is and what their view of the fuel cell world is.
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