Ten years ago, the centerpiece of any conference on fuel cells would have been the hydrogen car and its glitzy promise to replace dirty gasoline engines in the not too distant future.
Fast forward to 2009 to an actual fuel cell industry meeting in the West Coast city of Vancouver and sleek hydrogen cars are jostling for space and attention with the humble industrial forklift, and there is little talk of the imminent death of the internal combustion engine.
The "zero-emissions" cars remain a sexy drawing card -- a fleet of 12 arriving in Vancouver from California on Wednesday after traveling 2,700 km (1,700 miles) drew a large crowd. But their earlier massive promises have disappointed and forklifts are where the money looks to be for now for fuel cells.
Three years ago Ballard Power Systems Inc, for many years the poster child of the automotive fuel cell industry, did what many would have thought unthinkable during the hype years of the late 1990s when its stock rocketed to C$200 on the then-promising technology: it decided to get out of the business.
Instead of continuing to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to develop an efficient, economical fuel cell for the car of the future it turned its eye to more pedestrian markets like forklifts and back-up power systems where the technology could find commercial use now.
"The problem that we came to grips with (was) ... what type of investment over what timeline would be required to bring down the cost of that new propulsion system technology to the point that it would be a commercial reality?" said Ballard Chief Executive John Sheridan.
"The reality seemed to develop pretty clearly from all sides that this was still a very long-term proposition," he said.
2015 TARGET TOO OPTIMISTIC?
Fuel cells are devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel, like hydrogen, into electricity. In hydrogen cars, the electricity then powers an electric motor and water is given off as a by-product.
Supporters thus hail them as being the most environmentally friendly alternative to the tailpipe emissions of the internal combustion engine.
Car makers including General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp told conference delegates in Vancouver this week that they are targeting 2015 as the date for a small, initial roll-out of fuel cell cars to the public.
The automakers themselves acknowledge that major obstacles -- the same one that have been around for years -- continue to dog the hydrogen car industry.
First and foremost is the lack of filling station infrastructure, a massive cost if the hydrogen car economy is to succeed but a chicken-and-egg problem for the industry.
"Cars will arrive in relatively small batches but the stations need to be there or the vehicles will stop coming," said Michael McGowan, head of hydrogen solutions at Linde Gas North America and Chairman of the U.S. National Hydrogen Association.
Other troubling questions include where the hydrogen fuel will come from, where it will be stored and how it will be distributed. The high cost of fuel cells is another bugbear.
Ballard's Sheridan believes the 2015 target could well be optimistic, given the financial woes of recession-battered car makers in Detroit and elsewhere.
ENTER THE FORKLIFT
Instead, Ballard is now selling fuel cells to warehouse operations for use in forklifts.
Early orders are small but the Vancouver-based company believes these will ramp up as the materials handling industry sees the benefits of fuel cells over the incumbent lead-acid battery technology.
Fuel cell-powered forklifts can be refueled in minutes, according to John Tak, President and Chief Executive of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, unlike the hours it takes to recharge a battery.
Battery packs need to be stored somewhere taking up valuable space on the warehouse floor. Fuel cells also operate for longer and don't present the same disposal problems as a toxic battery at the end of its life.
Ballard's Sheridan says there are many in his company who were sorry to give up the automotive fuel cell dream.
"I would love to see the technology (work). The technology could do a lot at a critical time for the environment, but in terms of the commercial reality we just don't see it," he said.