Under the Radar No More
By Bill Moore
If Dr. Jeff Yang's plans work out, your very first fuel cell vehicle may be a Taiwanese-built motor scooter sometime around 2006 and it won't cost much more than a gasoline-powered model. Above all, it will be quiet and non-polluting.
I had the chance to drive Dr. Yang's fifth generation machine, dubbed the ZES IV.5 during the Ride & Drive session of the Fuel Cell Seminar held this month in San Antonio, Texas.
I was impressed with what I saw and experienced, especially how quickly and easily his team "refueled" the machine with a pair of small hydrogen canisters roughly the size of a conventional propane fuel canister, each of which gives the scooter a range of 30 km or about 18 miles. Filled with metal hydride material, the hydrogen is stored under low pressure, making the canister heavy but far safer than if the hydrogen were under extreme pressure, as is the practice with current fuel cell automobiles
In short, the ZEV IV.5 may be the precursor of a transportation revolution, but as I learned from my conversation with Dr. Yang, there's still a lot of ground to be covered between now and that quieter, cleaner, more sustainable future.
Dr. Yang formed Asia Pacific Fuel Cell Technologies in April, 2000. His goal is to be a fuel cell systems provider by first creating a fuel cell powered motor scooter to help solve one of Taiwan's Asia's biggest pollution problems, the dirty, noisy, two-stroke motor scooter that is the predominate mode of personal transport in much of Southeast Asia.
According to Yang, the population of Taiwan is 23 million, but there are an amazing 10 million scooters, one for every 2.3 people on the island. The country now produces about 800,000 new machines every year just to meet local demand, exporting as many, if not more to other parts of the world.
Something to Crow About
Until I stumbled across Asia Pacific's booth in the Exhibition Hall during the Fuel Cell Seminar, I was completely unaware of their existence, much less the amazing progress they've made in four years.
Yang told me that it's his personal philosophy to keep a low profile and to not engage in exaggerated, premature public pronouncements until the company has something tangible to demonstrate. That's why they've only shown their scooters and fuel cell technologies at the Fuel Cell Seminar.
"We have been low-keyed... because the first few years of our company's existence, we have been devoting that time to developing our technology rather than applying it prematurely to any product."
With the development of its fourth generation machine, Asia Pacific has focused its efforts on creating a scooter designed specifically for the Asian market. Although its ZES 3 model was a traditional Vespa-type European scooter, it has decided to concentrate on Asian market first, designing a machine tailored its driver's needs, which appears to be for a somewhat smaller, lighter machine that falls between a moped and the mid-class type scooter being marketed by Oxygen or the heavy-class being developed by Vectrix, which was also at the seminar and which we'll feature in the coming weeks.
In addition to its Taiwan headquarters, Asia Pacific maintains a major system test facility in Anaheim, California.
"Our mission is to commercialize fuel cells, so we have positioned ourselves as a midstream supplier of fuel cell systems to whoever can put these systems to use," he told me.
That not only includes motor scooters but also wheelchairs and other low kilowatt-based applications. His booth in San Antonio included what surely must be the first fuel cell powered wheelchair in the world, but as he told me later in the interview, he is hoping to develop a machine that gives enhanced mobility to the disabled without the stigma or disadvantages of the traditional wheelchair.
Yang explained that Asia Pacific has no plans to mass manufacture its fuel cell scooter, itself. Instead it would partner with an established scooter maker to supply them with the technology.
The company's first two generations of scooters were simply conversions of existing electric scooters, but from the third generation forward, the machines have been designed and built specifically for Asia Pacific's air-cooled and liquid-cooled systems, all of which have been developed in-house. The air-cooled stack comes in a range of 100-800 Watts and the liquid-cooled version runs from 1000 Watts to as high as 7kW.
"It kind of, more or less, covers the spectrum from very low power up to seven kilowatts."
The IV.5 scooter utilizes the liquid-cooled stack, which has a peak power output of 2.5kW. The proton exchange membrane or PEM-based system also uses ultracapacitors for transient operation and vehicle launch.
I asked Yang about critical issues such as stack reliability and durability, as well as the projected cost of his fuel cell. He talked about the cost issue first by telling me that he calculates it will be cost competitive with a comparable internal combustion engine or ICE once volumes reached 20,000 units.
But as you might expect, getting a scooter manufacturer to take that size of a financial risk on a new, unproven technology based on an unfamiliar energy sources (hydrogen) is a significant obstacle, one Yang readily admits, noting however, every other fuel cell application faces the same problem.
"Scooter are not going to be an easy market to break into," he stated "But on the other hand, considering annual production, world production of two-wheeled vehicles, which I think is about 25 million vehicles a year now. So, 20,000 a year really is a ... drop in the bucket. Much less than one percent. So, from that standpoint, it's not impossible."
"The very first step is to demonstrate the maturity of the technology," he said in explaining how he hopes to solve the 20,000 unit conundrum. "That's what we've been endeavoring to do for the past four years. I think that at this point we have, more or less, completed the basic demonstration of the viability of fuel cell technology."
"Now we still need to do quite a bit of testing, especially in the durability, life cycle testing," he confirmed. He discusses in part two of this interview, how he is planning to address that aspect of his product development.
Creating the First Commercially Viable Hydrogen Infrastructure
While states like California and Illinois have ambitious plans to create "hydrogen highways" dotted every few miles of Interstate with hydrogen dispensing stations, at half a million bucks a pop or more, Yang envisions something much more modest.
It's one thing to build a working, reliable fuel cell motor scooter, which he's done and my spin around the parking lot of the Alamo Dome in San Antonio confirmed; its another to provide potential buyers with an easy and convenient way to refuel.
Equally as significant as his fuel cell system and motor scooter is Yang's innovative hydrogen storage system consisting of aluminum alloy cylinders measuring 76x362mm and storing 50 g of hydrogen each in an AB5 metal hydride. When recharged with H2 – a process that takes about 30 minutes, according to the company web site, a canister weighs about 4.5 kg or just slightly under 10 pounds. Admittedly, that's heavy, but it offers far greater hydrogen storage capacity than either compressed or liquid hydrogen, neither of which is suitable for simple scooter operation.
"Unless you have a readily available and convenient source for hydrogen fuel the customer will not accept your fuel cell scooter, no matter how good it is," he stated.
He explained to me that, in his view, battery electric motor scooters failed largely because of the inconvenience of having to recharge the batteries. Not only is there the issue of the time it takes -- typically 5 to 8 hours -- to recharge, more importantly in a nation like Taiwan or across Asia, electricity isn't always as readily available as it is in the West. Then, too, there's the psychological fear factor of running out of charge at an inconvenient place or time.
Yang believes that simply swapping, in less than a minute's time, a 50g hydrogen canister will alleviate those concerns. A driver can be back on the road with 15-18 miles of driving range in just a couple minutes.
But where do you get the refills? He's worked that out, as well. Initially, he will distribute them through his partner, Chinese Petroleum Corporation, the dominate oil refiner and distributor in Taiwan. Filling stations around the island will carry replacement cylinders, which attendants will refill from standard K-type industry hydrogen bottles. Eventually, as demand requires, used canisters will be picked up and refilled at an automated central facility.
This model is similar to that in North America where consumers exchange propane tanks to refuel their outdoor barbecue grills. The company estimates that each canister can be refilled in excess of one-thousand times before being recycled.
Next week, Yang talks more about the technology of his canisters, when he sees a fuel cell scooter on the commercial market and where the hydrogen will come from.
CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK...