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Archive for November 6th, 2007

Hydrogen highway hits dead end

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National Post

Ballard’s talks with potential buyers is admission that dream of hydrogen fuel car is dead

Ballard has raised – and spent – huge amounts of money, but it now looks ready to admit that the dream of a car that runs on a fuel cell may not be realised.

“The problem was always, can you make hydrogen fuel at a price point that makes any sense to anybody. And the answer to that to date has been no”

Which when you think that in the time Ballard has been trying to crack this nut, the price of oil has risen from around $20 to nudging $100 is really quite remarkable. A lot of technologies – including extracting motor fuel from oil sands – looked very dubious when oil was cheap but are now very popular investments. Ballard seemed to me to be too good to be true when I first heard of it, and the technology people kept comparing the way fuel cell prices would drop to the way that computers have got cheaper. But Research Capital analyst Jon Hykawy draws attention to the “fuel” itself. Since I am not a scientist, nor an engineer, I must admit that I felt a bit out of my depth, but I never really understood why hydrogen was such a draw. It seemed to be to be ridiculously difficult to store and move the stuff, and I just did not see how you could overcome some of the basic physics. Not only that but here in Vancouver hydrogen was being vented as a waste product – a side effect from some other chemical process – and no-one seemed in the slightest bit interested in why it could not be captured economically.

In the end it always comes down to basic economics – and hydrogen is not actually a source of energy, merely a rather inefficient way of moving it about. Yes it seemed to make sense to NASA to use it as rocket fuel, but then they developed a ball point pen to work in space when the Russians just used pencils. Just because you can persuade a bunch of congressmen to give you a huge budget doesn’t mean it is necessarily a very good idea. Or, in the case of Ballard, a lot of people who have bought shares in an enterprise that does not seem likely now to be the next Big Thing.

The FP’s headline of course does not refer to Arnie and Gordon’s ridiculous PR exercise. I expect that will stagger along for a bit longer until someone quietly puts it out of its misery, and it will join methanol and propane as transportation fuels that promised much but delivered little. And mostly at the taxpayers’ expense.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2007 at 9:46 pm