Fuel Cell Powered Buses Inching More and More Into Mainstream

by | Jan 6, 2017

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Ballard Power Systems says that it is using a fuel cell to power buses — a move that may have relevance for the transportation sector. The technology has been used, it says, is in 15 countries  on 5 continents over the last decade.

Its engines are now powering more than 80 buses around the globe: 41 in Europe , including Belgium , Germany , Italy , the Netherlands , Norway , Scotland and the U.K.; 24 in the Cities of Foshan and Yunfu, China ; 13 in the U.S.A. , including the states of California , Massachusetts , Michigan and Ohio ; 3 in Brazil ; and 1 in India, the company says in a release. What makes this notable is the fact that it has move those buses collectively 6.2 million miles.

Where else does Ballard see progress? 300 more buses in China and a light rail system there as well. It is also bidding in Europe and the United States on similar projects.

“The achievement of 10 million cumulative kilometers of revenue service is a major industry and corporate milestone,” said Randy MacEwen , Ballard’s President CEO. “We are moving beyond technical validation into commercial scaling at a time where market demand is at a breakthrough inflection point. The cumulative learning by Ballard during our unparalleled field experience serves as a major competitive differentiator.”

What makes fuel cell buses so uncommon? Ballard says:

  • 350 kilometer (220 mile) range between refuelings;
  • Rapid refueling in as little as 7 minutes;
  • Improved fuel economy compared to diesel buses (1.5x) and CNG buses (more than 2x);
  • Operating performance comparable to diesel and CNG buses;
  • Comparable durability, with several fuel cell buses having passed the 20,000 operating hour threshold;
  • Route flexibility, with no need for en-route recharging, such as overhead catenary wiring; and
  • Reduced noise and smoother ride for improved passenger riding experience.

Ultimately the goal is to run such fuel cells using hydrogen, which is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. The trick to its economic use is several-fold. To name two: an efficient method of extracting it from water, where it resides most abundantly; and an infrastructure that can deliver it for, say, transportation purposes.

To be useful in energy applications such as fuel cells, for instance, a pure hydrogen source is required. If the “hydrogen economy” is to become a reality, then cheaper and more efficient methods of stripping the hydrogen from water must be developed. Today’s technologies—which include electrolysis—tend to be costly and inefficient. However, work at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) shows promise in achieving cost targets. According to NREL, hydrogen has nearly three times the energy content of gasoline, which compensates for efficiency losses.

Hydrogen has other advantages. When used in a fuel cell, hydrogen produces electricity and its only byproduct is water vapor. With current technology, hydrogen-fueled vehicles have more than twice the range of current EV technology, powered by electro-chemical batteries.

One major drawback: the energy used to create pure hydrogen, store it and transport it may outweigh its benefits.

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