Burnaby inaugurates new fuel cell manufacturing facility

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With the grand launch of a new multimillion-dollar production and research facility in Burnaby on Wednesday, Metro Vancouver’s status as a hydrogen fuel cell technology centre was bolstered.

Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group established cellcentric GmbH & Co. KG, a division focusing in the production of fuel cell systems for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, in 2013.

One of its new plants just opened in Burnaby’s Riverbend Business Park, just a few blocks away from Ballard Power Systems, where cellcentric was conceived in 2008.

Formerly housed in a wing of Ballard’s Burnaby headquarters, the new cellcentric facility is twice as large and has three times the production capacity. The majority of the 70 employees at the new 56,727-square-foot building specialize on fuel cell technology.

The factory in Burnaby manufactures hydrogen fuel cells and stacks, the heart of fuel cell systems, for the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle markets. They are then delivered to cellcentric’s headquarters in Germany, where they are incorporated into entire fuel cell systems for trucks.

Christian Mohrdieck, cellcentric’s chief commercial officer, stated, “We do a portion of the cell production and final stack assembly in Burnaby, as well as a significant portion of the fuel cell R&D, particularly stack R&D.”

This is the most novel aspect of the fuel cell, and we believe that Burnaby and Canada have a unique expertise foundation in this area.

The fuel cell business for trucks is still in its infancy, but government rules for zero-emission vehicles – including in Canada – are anticipated to compel the trucking industry in North America and Europe to go fully electric, either through battery power or hydrogen fuel cells. (Fuel cell vehicles are electric, but the electricity is generated chemically from hydrogen, as opposed to being stored in batteries.)

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, medium- and heavy-duty trucks account for less than 5 percent of vehicles on the road but more than 20 percent of transportation emissions (DOE).

While battery electric will likely dominate the light- and medium-duty truck market, hydrogen fuel cells will likely dominate the heavy-duty, long-haul, and return-to-base truck markets.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has recently predicted that hydrogen fuel cells will be cost-competitive with diesel engines in the heavy-duty trucking industry within a decade.

The NREL paper states, “Due to developments in fuel cells and clean hydrogen production, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are predicted to become cost-competitive for long-haul heavy-duty trucks with a range more than 500 miles by 2035.”

Together, Daimler Truck and Volvo Group control around fifty percent of the medium- and heavy-duty truck market in North America.

Mohrdieck stated that there are now no long-haul semi trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells on the road, but that will change in the coming years.

“We are considering testing fleets for next year and then ramping up production after 2025 since we know our customers will have a demand in this time frame, particularly to comply with CO2 reduction rules,” he said.

When asked how much the company had invested in the new Burnaby site, Mohrdieck responded, “We don’t divulge the precise amount, but it’s in the millions of Canadian dollars.”

Minister of Energy, Mines, and Low Carbon Innovation Bruce Ralston questioned cellcentric Canada CEO Andrea Engelen why the firm chose Burnaby for its new facility at Wednesday’s opening ceremonies.

“I specifically asked why Burnaby? Ralston stated. She stated, “We must be here because this is the Silicon Valley of hydrogen fuel cells.”

Cellcentric’s chief executive officer, Matthias Jurytko, cited Canada’s commitment to establishing a hydrogen economy as another consideration.

“At cellcentric, we are inspired by the Europeans’ dedication to zero emissions, and we are encouraged by Canada’s leadership and commitment, as evidenced by the Canadian Hydrogen Strategy,” he said.

The new cellcentric factory is one of the numerous fuel cell firms that Ballard Power Systems connected.

In 2008, Ballard Power sold its light-duty vehicle fuel cell division to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Firm, who continued to operate out of the same facility, but as a completely distinct company – the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC). Mercedes-Benz Fuel Cells Division was an additional subsidiary.

In 2012, Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group AB partnered to form cellcentric, utilizing some of the intellectual property and talent spun out from Ballard in 2008.

“With the cutout from Ballard, we also inherited some Ballard residents…and this is still the same group,” Mohrdieck explained.

Concerns have been voiced over employment losses in traditional Canadian industries such as coal and oil and gas as a result of the Trudeau administration’s aggressive climate change and energy transition initiatives. Minister of Natural Resources Canada Jonathan Wilkinson has, however, spoken in recent months about the positive aspects of the energy transition, which bring new commercial prospects – the new cellcentric plant being one example.

Wilkinson stated that the inauguration of this new R&D facility will capitalize on Canadian creativity and experience with hydrogen fuel cells. It will allow for the tripling of local production capacity. It will help us achieve our objective of being a global leader in the production of these cells.”

Nedim Husomanovic

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