The recall of 11 million Volkswagen diesel vehicles highlights the challenges of reducing emissions from fossil fuel-powered cars. Fortunately, there’s an alternative and it has zero emissions. The fuel-cell car is currently being developed by major automakers including Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Hyundai.
Walter Mérida, director of UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC), has been researching fuel-cell technology for more than 15 years. When Mercedes-Benz rolls out its new fuel-cell cars in a few years, they’ll feature Canadian technology.
What are some of the benefits of fuel cells?
Fuel cells convert hydrogen and other fuels into electricity quietly, efficiently, and without pollution. A fuel-cell car produces zero emissions. You’ll only see water coming out of the tailpipes. And it’s quickly refueled, unlike battery-powered cars which can take hours to recharge.
Fuel cells can be used to build a renewable, carbon-free energy system if you produce the hydrogen from renewable sources, such as hydroelectricity. The geopolitical impact can be profound. Countries without fossil fuel sources such as oil or natural gas can generate the energy they need, cleanly.
How far along is fuel cell adoption?
Auto manufacturers are investing in fuel cell cars, trucks, and other types of vehicles. Hyundai is already leasing fuel-cell SUVs in Vancouver, while Toyota expects to begin delivery of hydrogen fuel-cell cars in California next year. Mercedes-Benz is expected to introduce its new generation of fuel-cell cars in a few years.
Walter Mérida (above)
By 2017, fuel-cell car sales are expected to approximate that of electric cars in their early adoption stage.
As well, refueling networks are being laid out in places like California, where there are 10 public hydrogen fuel stations, and in Japan, where 23 stations have opened and hundreds more are being planned. Germany recently opened its first hydrogen filling station on the autobahn. There are plans for the rollout of more than 50 stations across Europe over the next few years.
Fuel cells are already part of the power grid in some cities. New York is an example. You could also have small applications, such as cellphones, because fuel cells can be miniaturized.
Tell us about your work on fuel cells.
My group at CERC is working on new techniques to ensure the durability and reliability of fuel cells as they move into mass manufacturing. We collaborate with hydrogen fuel-cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems, based in Burnaby, and with Germany’s Mercedes-Benz.
British Columbia is seen around the world as the leader in this field, and so when Mercedes-Benz decided to open their own production facility for automotive fuel cells in 2012, they chose to come to B.C.
Is the internal-combustion engine slated for the trash heap?
Not quite yet. Right now about 80 per cent of our primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels–coal, oil and gas–and combustion will remain an important technology for many more years.
The main barriers for fuel-cell technology at the moment are the cost of generating power from it, and the lack of an efficient, extensive refueling network. But I see a future for hydrogen fuel cells as a way out of transportation’s extreme dependence on fossil fuels.
How does the new program you helped develop at UBC fit into all this?
We’re at the threshold of a big transition in the way we think about energy. The global investment in renewable energy was more than $200 billion in the last year alone. Engineers and executives should know how clean technology can transform the global economy. The new master of engineering leadership (MEL) in clean energy engineering offered by UBC Applied Science will give them that perspective through a combination of management education and advanced engineering courses.
Walter Mérida is one of the speakers at UBC’s Innovate 2015, a dialogue that brings applied research to the community. For more information or to book interviews, contact ErinRose Handy at 604.822.1524 or [email protected]
About the Clean Energy Research Centre at UBC
Established in 2000, CERC develops viable solutions for sustainable energy. It is focused on energy systems that simultaneously minimize environmental impact, promote geopolitical stability, and enable economic diversification. CERC works closely with an extensive scientific network across Canada and around the world, and with a number of industry partners.
About the Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL)
The new master of engineering leadership is a one-year, full-time degree program offered by UBC Applied Science in collaboration with the Sauder School of Business. There are seven engineering specializations: advanced materials manufacturing, clean energy, dependable software systems, green bio-products, integrated water management, naval architecture and marine engineering, and urban systems. UBC Applied Science also offers a master of health leadership and policy in seniors care through the School of Nursing. All eight programs combine technical instruction with personal leadership development, with the first students starting in January 2016.
Main image: More fuel-cell cars are in development.