UBC Expert Believes Fuel Cells Are the Future

UBC fuel cell research

Below is a release from the University of British Columiba in Canada about their Clean Energy Research Centre and their new new master of engineering leadership (MEL) in clean energy engineering program. This is a great university located in one of the prettiest cities in the world.

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

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.

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