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Hydrogen age coming upon us fast

Nov. 18, 2000 - Cameron Smith - TORONTO STAR

It's about the size of a regular washing machine and it's going to get about one-third smaller. If all goes as expected, you'll be able to buy one in two or three years for $2,300 to $3,000, put it in your driveway, plug it into a normal electrical outlet, hook a water hose to it, and pump fuel into your car.

The fuel will be hydrogen; your car will be powered by electricity delivered from hydrogen fuel cells; and there will be no resulting pollution.

Such cars already exist. Last January, General Motors unveiled its prototype model at the Detroit auto show. According to the company, the car could achieve a mileage equivalent to 100 kilometres per 2.2 litres of gasoline (130 miles to the gallon).

The Ford Motor Co. has fitted a hydrogen-powered engine into a standard car, and proved that it would work, but got a lower mileage rating because the car was not designed to accommodate a hydrogen fuel-cell system.

The home fuelling unit is built by Stuart Energy Systems Corp. located at The West Mall in Toronto, near the intersection of Hwy. 427 and the Gardiner Expressway.

Next week, the company expects to deliver four of its home units to Ford for use in Ford's research and development program. Stuart also makes larger units, and they've been used for fuelling hydrogen-powered buses built by Ballard Power Systems Inc. for demonstration projects in Vancouver and in Thousand Palms, Calif.

Stuart Energy was founded in 1948 to supply hydrogen for industrial purposes - the manufacture of a wide range of items, such as stainless steel, plate glass, light bulbs, edible oils, polyethylene and polypropylene.

What got the company interested in the transportation sector was the 1990 announcement by the California Air Resources Board that by 2003, 10 per cent of the cars sold in the state would have to be zero pollution-emitting vehicles. Hydrogen-powered cars will meet that requirement, emitting only water vapour.

By 1995, Alexander Stuart, the company's chairman, had launched Stuart into a research and development program that has cost the company $14.7 million to date, and occupies 40 of its 121 full-time employees and consultants, more than 30 per cent of its work force.

However, targeting the transportation sector has risks, as the company noted in a recent prospectus aimed at raising $150 million in the stock market. No one knows for sure what types of cars consumers will choose. Will they be hydrogen powered? Or will they be electric? Or gasoline-electric hybrids? Will new and emerging technologies beat out hydrogen? Will bigger and more powerful companies shoulder Stuart out of the market?

Electric cars are more efficient than hydrogen-powered. They are 90 per cent efficient, meaning that for every 100 units of energy in the electricity drawn from an outlet and put into a car battery, the car will get 90 units of energy for operating. But electric cars have a range of about 240 kilometres; they depend on huge, heavy and expensive batteries that take a long time to charge.

Hydrogen-powered cars will have 2 ½ times the range of an electric car. They can be filled overnight, like an electric car, directly from Stuart's home unit. Or the home unit can be used to fill a storage tank, in which case, they can be filled within minutes, just like a car powered with natural gas.

However, their efficiency is only 35 per cent. Thirty per cent of the energy is consumed by Stuart's unit in creating and compressing the hydrogen. And the fuel cells in a car will consume another 35 per cent converting the hydrogen back into electricity.

Even so, the cost (not counting the purchase price of the home unit) will be about the same as a driver pays now for gasoline, says Stuart's son Andrew, CEO of the company.

"We're at the beginning of the beginning," he adds. And this, in the midst of all the dire news from the global warming conference in The Hague, strikes a most welcome note of hope.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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