From Hydrogen ICEBEAR to Future EV Communities
By Bill Moore
Like so many people in the electric vehicle industry, Bruce Wood is a visionary. But he's also a pragmatist who believes in not just talking about the future, but in taking a proactive role steering it towards a brighter horizon.
Like so many people in the electric vehicle industry, Bruce Wood is a visionary. But he's also a pragmatist who believes in not just talking about the future, but in taking a proactive role in wanting to steer it towards a brighter horizon.
I first met Bruce several years ago when he worked for John Deere developing their strategic response to a shift away from petroleum-dependent products. His team's first prototype product was a John Deere "Gator" off-road utility vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. I'd see him briefly at a workshop in Boulder, Colorado in September 2004.
The next thing I hear is that he's left Deere to form his own company, ePower Synergies, which would steer the development of the world's first hydrogen fuel cell ice resurfacer, in cooperation with Resurfice, Hymotion and Dynetek, as well as the University of North Dakota.
Why an ice resurfacing machine and not a bus or boat? It turns out that powering a machine like the ICEBEAR is a very good application for a hydrogen fuel cell where driving range isn't the issue, but duty cycle is.
As Wood explained it to me over the commotion of the exhibit hall, most ice resurfaces are powered by propane-fueled internal combustion engines. There are a few Solectria-powered battery-electric models around that operate in enclosed rinks. While the propane models are suitable for outside rinks, their carbon monoxide emissions indoors make them a potentially lethal hazard. Still some indoor rinks take the risk. Wood pointed out that the cold temperature of an ice rink causes the poisonous carbon monoxide to settle near the surface of the rink; and to his recollection, there was an incident of CO poisoning at a local rink in Vancouver the previous year. There was also a similar event on December 5th in Barrington, IL that sent 7 people to the hospital.
While the battery electric models perform well indoors, generating no emissions, the length of time they can operate is typically less than an 8 hour shift. The other sixteen hours, they have to be recharged and their battery packs cooled down. This necessitates having more than one set of batteries that can be manually exchanged between shifts, which isn't all that practical, or acquiring more than one resurfacer for rinks that operate around-the-clock.
This first model uses a 5kW Nuvera fuel cell stack and was developed in Canada in just two month's time.
Woods noted that the hydrogen fuel cell ICEBEAR can be refueled in just a few minutes and be placed back into service, eliminating the need for spare batteries and/or an extra machine. The ICEBEAR carries just under 2 kilograms of gaseous hydrogen, enough to power the unit for 30 "floods", which is the term used for a resurfacing session. That is more than a battery electric version can do. He explained that a busy skating rink gets resurfaced every 20 minutes, with the machine moving constantly from one rink to the next. This would give the fuel cell ICEBEAR something like 10 hours of continuous operation before needing to be refueled, which is accomplished using about a $25,000 refueling unit with hydrogen provided by the local industrial gas supplier
He's also convinced that this improvement in overall efficiency easily justifies the initial higher cost of the H2-fueled ICEBEAR. And while he didn't comment on it, it would probably also help lower a rink's liability insurance premiums since the only emission from the machine is warm water vapor, which itself could be used in the resurfacing process.
Europe, he pointed out has largely banned propane ice resurfaces in all its indoor rinks. He acknowledges this is not a large market.
"We think there's market; it's not a huge market." He estimates that maybe worldwide some 200-500 units are sold annually.
"It's not going to create huge amount of sales, but what it does is that it demonstrates to people that [hydrogen fuel cells are] here. It allows us to move the technology into other spaces".
He sees the ICEBEAR proving that the technology can also be applied to industrial lift trucks, especially those that have to work in a enclosed environment. Here too, battery electric models, which typically use lead-acid batteries, encounter the same duty cycle limitations, necessitating extra batteries, chargers and storage space.
Beyond spear-heading and overseeing the development of similar clean vehicle technologies, ePower Synergies is also exploring opportunities to help communities develop clean transportation systems
"One would be a master-planned community. Another would be a housing development. Another would be a park or a resort or a military base or airport… or a whole range of industrial facilities. We'd actually go in a develop the vehicle system to move people and goods; and then actually run it for them.
"So, in many cases, we would be the owners of the vehicles and the operators".
Wood said that the company would evaluate the operational and economic pros and cons of each power system including fuel cells and battery electric vehicles that could utilize advanced chemistries rather than more commonly used lead-acid.
He explained that as part of his marketing effort, he is talking to a wide range of community decision makers from city planners to real estate developers.
"We're talking to people who manage air bases and army bases. One of the issues they have is that in addition to having an environmental mandate, they also have a security mandate. And if I could put together a vehicle system like we're talking about, I'll track all the vehicles, so we'll know where they are." He said this helps the military track what they call POVs or personally-operated vehicles on the base.
Wood also plans to offer carshare-like programs centered around small, low-speed vehicles for master-planned communities and the like. He sees even possible roles for electric scooters and Segway transporters.
"If we can find ways to share vehicles, we can offer to a residential developer the opportunity to build less roads, less streets, less garages; and actually offer the consumer the opportunity to buy a better home by not having to put so much money into infrastructure like a garage. We can take one bay out of a three car garage and have a two-car garage. That becomes pretty exciting."
He told EV World that he has already signed letters of intent with a couple master-planned communities.
"It helps my mission to try to move some of these advanced technologies forward, because all of a sudden, we're removing the barriers that people have for wanting to try new technologies."
He sees that even in the case of NEV's or neighborhood electric vehicles that as the price of fuel cells come down, they can make these vehicle more acceptable to a wider number of people who want air conditioning in the south or heaters in the north. These are energy-robbing accessories in a battery NEV, but become possible with a small fuel cell stack.
"We expect that most of the stuff we do will be battery electrics, real standard stuff. But we expect as we go, we'll experiment and develop some of the advanced technologies".
Wood said that early in his business plan development he realized he was trying to "push" technology into a marketplace that wasn't ready for it. He say that he need, instead, to "pull" the technology along by helping lower barriers.
"We recognized this enormous need for these communities to address these mobility issues and if we could put the tweaks together, we would become the market and we could go to the OEMs… and pull their products into the market.
The vision for this market pull approach started when Wood visited his wife's parents who live in a master-planned community in Florida. Due to failing eyesight , his father-in-law was gradually losing his ability to drive a regular vehicle, so they began to explore the feasibility of acquiring a GEM low-speed electric car for him.
"We started to understand some of the issues they were facing, and the more we looked at that, the more we started to understand there is a market here, but you've got to address it a little bit differently."
That personal experience at the family level, plus his past involvement with the Vancouver Olympic's sustainable transportation committee, as well as discussions with military base managers, have helped shape Wood's vision, which includes not only LSVs, and fuel cell vehicles like the ICEBEAR, but also one that utilizes state of the art communications from GPS to wireless Internet.
He sees the convergence of technology and concerns for security, the environment and energy as the "perfect storm".
"You start tying it all together and it says, 'hey, it works'. Five years ago, it wouldn't have worked. The technology wasn't there. Five years from now, I think it will be commonplace. We think this is an opportunity for us to make an interesting business. It's a key, enabling business that is good for the environment, good for the economy, good for efficiency."
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