San Diego Business Journal Transportation: Production And Design Center Will Make Emission-Free Motors

POWAY , A joint venture looking to build the next generation in pollution-free vehicles has opened its U.S. headquarters in San Diego County.

Xcellsis unveiled its new production and design facility for "fuel cell" engines Feb. 2 in Poway. The company is a joint venture between Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler and Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian fuel cell manufacturer.

The facility, with 52,000 square feet and 110 employees, is working to get fuel-cell powered passenger cars on the market by 2004.

A fuel cell produces electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen directly into water through an electrochemical process. The electricity then is used to power the vehicle, said Rick Cooper, chief executive officer of Xcellsis.

Unlike a conventionally powered vehicle, it produces little or no emissions. Unlike current electric cars operating off a battery, the fuel-cell vehicle will continue to run so long as the fuel is provided, without the lengthy recharging times other electric vehicles require, he said.

To make the fuel cell work, oxygen from the air is combined with hydrogen, which is stored in the vehicle either directly or as methanol. The methanol is then converted into hydrogen for use in the fuel cell, Cooper said.

Alan Lloyd, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, expressed gratitude to Xcellsis , both for the emissions reduction potential of fuel-cell vehicles and for locating the facility in California.

Creating Jobs And Clean Air

"We can certainly do with all the help to create jobs, as well as providing clean air, energy efficiency and energy diversity. I can't say how pleased I am with this expansion," he said.

Xcellsis' work is part of a larger phenomenon of commercialization of clean technologies, which Lloyd said would be good for the state economically and environmentally.

"Jobs are being created here in California, not just at this facility, but also with the suppliers of fuels and other component parts," he said. "As we strive for cleaner air, this technology fits in very well with our plans."

Lloyd pointed out the previous week, the board voted unanimously to reaffirm its commitment to require zero-emission vehicles be sold in the state. Seeing Xcellsis' work, he knew the board wason the right track, he said.

The opening of the Poway facility featured several operating fuel-cell vehicles, using either hydrogen or methanol. These demonstration projects included a Mercedes Benz compact hatchback, a mid-size sedan from Ford, a sport utility vehicle from Jeep and a full-size transit bus built by Xcellsis.

Next Generation Fuel Cell

The work at Xcellsis, together with Xcellsis' headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, will create the next-generation fuel cell system, Cooper said.

"It will be more advanced than today's version. It will be more powerful and more efficient. And in addition, it will meet our customers' requirement for reliability and all of the other performance expectations they have with today's internal combustion engines," he said.

Beyond getting fuel-cell vehicles to drive like conventionally powered vehicles, the other main goal is installing the infrastructure to support refueling.

Shahid Siddiqui, resident engineer for the hydrogen-powered Ford Focus, said there is a pilot program to build 12 hydrogen refueling stations in Sacramento by 2004. Fueling a car with hydrogen would be just like gassing up a conventional car, he said.

Although hydrogen is a highly flammable fuel, the safety issues have already been addressed. The hydrogen is stored in steel tanks that can withstand any collision , even if a gun were fired directly at the hydrogen, Siddiqui said.

As for methanol, installing the infrastructure would mean converting already existing gas pumps to methanol. Both are liquid fuels, and both can be manufactured, stored and transported in a similar manner, said Randy Buehler, control systems engineer for Xcellsis.

Obstacles To Overcome

But methanol has its own problems. It first has to travel through an on-board "reformer" to be converted into hydrogen for use in the fuel cell.

Currently, that extra step means hydrogen is not available to power the car until after it warms up , a problem engineers hope to solve in the next few years, he said.

Bill Ford, chairman of the Ford Motor Co., predicted fuel cells are the wave of the future.

"I believe fuel cells could end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine," he was quoted as saying in a press kit distributed by Xcellsis. "In 25 years, fuel cells could be the predominate automotive power source. Automakers will get a major business opportunity."