Under the Radar No More - Part 2
By Bill Moore
"Our plan is to do this kind of rationally and logically", Yang explained when I asked him when he foresaw having motor scooters powered by his firm's PEM fuel cell in retail dealerships, starting in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
"By that I mean, the first step being the validation of fuel cell technology, which we have, roughly at this, time completed. Now the next step is to do a fleet demonstration involving several dozens of vehicles that [are] being test driven in a controlled environment to get feedback, not only technical but also from users".
That demonstration program would, Yang believes, provide his company with valuable data on the reliability, durability and performance of his fuel cell system. And the fleet users would also give him a better idea of the scooter overall; its convenience, handling, and design.
"After we do these... fleet surveys, then we can make a final revision [of the design] and put all these survey results into a commercial product; and then do commercial production. That way we'll have a lot more confidence then, let's say previously, when people rushed into introducing battery-powered scooters before they made a thorough survey of the acceptability to consumers".
Yang said that he is making proposals to the Taiwanese government to help underwrite these fleet demonstrations. He thinks that regardless of any potential corporate sponsorship, governments are going to have to get involved in the transition to hydrogen, so they should participate even in these early trial programs.
"I envision this fleet demonstration to last at least one year. If everything is optimistically scheduled, then I can foresee a commercially-available hydrogen fuel cell scooter by 2006".
More on Those H2 Canisters
Asia Pacific is pioneering, in essence, three separate technologies; its fuel cell stacks, it hydrogen canisters and a retail distribution system for the fuel, not to mention the scooter, itself, which will likely be built by a separate manufacturer.
According to Dr. Yang, Asia Pacific Fuel Cell Technologies (APFCT), had to invent the technology that makes his metal hydride tanks possible, extruding each into a single, non-welded component. Each is filled with metal hydride material provided by suppliers in China and Japan.
He picked metal hydride because of its relatively high hydrogen storage capacity, actually more than liquid hydrogen for the same volume. "However, the kicker, of course, is it's very heavy. It is metal, after all." Another important advantage is that it can store this hydrogen at low pressure, just 100 psi; a fraction of that found in today's early prototype fuel cell vehicles where hydrogen is stored at 5,000 psi, if not higher. That's an important safety advantage.
"Psychologically, to the consumer, it is safe," he stated. It's weight and it's price, are the key reasons why it isn't currently being used in early fuel cell car demonstrators. He believes, however, that at about ten pounds per canister, it will be acceptable to consumers who will someday buy machines powered by his fuel cell system. Each canister is good for an estimated 30 kilometers or about 18 miles.
In order to release the hydrogen from the canister, Yang's system takes the heat generated by the fuel cell stack and circulates it through the canister. This forces the hydrogen from its bond with the hydride and into the stack where it combines with atmospheric oxygen to make the electricity that drives the scooter's electric motor; producing only water vapor as its "exhaust".
Yang explained to me that the more power you need to propel the scooter, the more waste heat the stack produces, forcing more hydrogen from the canisters. "It's fortunate that it's an endothermic process".
Targeting the Far East
APFCT will be concentrating its initial marketing efforts for its scooter technology in the Far East, where there historically has been a strong, steady demand for scooters. "I don't see a very large scooter market in North America, except perhaps in certain enclaves. For example, I do see quite a few scooters in the city of Miami Beach, [Florida]. I can see certain urban areas where the condition will be suitable for fuel cell scooters, but we must also realize that to put a fuel cell scooter or any hydrogen vehicle, it's not only a matter of technology but also involves a lot of code standards and those sort of things..."
Better Scooter, Less Power
Yang and his team have sought through the various generations of their scooter development to improve each iteration's performance, while simultaneously reducing the power required.
"Why would do that? It's precisely because the more power you require the more expensive [the scooter] will be. So, our latest version peaks at 2.5 kilowatts and has a 24 volt system. Of course, we would like a higher voltage system, but that would translate into a much larger fuel cell."
While Yang candidly admits the current model, VES VI.5, "won't do wheelies, the rider will find it to be quite responsive, and it will go at a pretty good clip. The maximum speed is over 50km per hour. And for a small, two-wheeled vehicle, you probably don't want it to be too much faster anyway. So, it's good for urban and city driving", he told me.
How much will it cost to operate is a function of the price of hydrogen, Yang noted. He said that his calculations show that initially, it will be slightly more expensive than gasoline, though he didn't share how much more. What he did reveal is that source of his hydrogen on Taiwan will be from his partner, China Petroleum Corporation, which owns about fifty percent of the service stations on the island. They have excess waste hydrogen in the form of a "tail gas" that is presently being burned up at their refineries. The plan is to capture this hydrogen, clean it up and then package it for use in fuel cell vehicles like the Asia Pacific scooter.
Yang calculates that at present, CPC can produce enough hydrogen to supply close to one million scooters. "This would be a similar case in other countries," he said, "because of the amount of petroleum we're using today". In Taiwan that would be enough to fuel about 10 percent of the 10 million scooters currently registered in the country.
Eventually, if all those scooters are eventually powered by hydrogen fuel cells, Taiwan is going to have to come up with other sources of the gas. Yang, like many others, envisions that hydrogen could someday be produced from renewable sources, though for the time being, he'd be happy to supply that first one million machines with stacks.
APFCT is also looking at the wheelchair market and had on display a electric wheelchair powered by their lower-powered, air-cooled unit, which generates one kilowatt of peak power. The prototype also incorporates a battery, but according to Yang, if you're running on level ground, the wheelchair will run exclusively on the power generated by the fuel cell. It utilizes four H2 canisters and can operate continuously for twelve hours.
"What we're try, working to do with our partner, the wheelchair maker, is we do not want to make a wheelchair specifically for the handicapped. What we want to call it is a personal mover; a personal mover that does not carry the stigma of the rider being handicapped. So, the vehicle will not look like your traditional wheelchair. In the future it will look like something quite a bit different than your traditional wheelchair."
I asked how easy it would be for a handicapped person to change the canisters and he replied that in this demonstration model, it would not be very easy, but in a commercial version of a future "personal mover" it would be.
"I think the space is wide open for imagination to locate the canisters at a more convenient point where they could be replaced with a little bending or stooping," Yang said, as we wrapped up our interview.
From my perspective, I think the key word in that statement is "imagination". That is the life blood of invention and clearly there's a lot of it flowing through the veins of Jefferson Yang, PhD and the people at Asia Pacific Fuel Cell Technologies.