Electric bus marks new smog-free era

Courtesy South Coast Air Quality Management District
he world's most advanced fuel cell electric transit bus is traveling southland streets, signifying a major advance in pollution-free transportation.
The 32-foot-long, 20-passenger bus, built by Ballard Power Systems of North Vancouver, Canada, uses a fuel cell and an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine and achieves performance comparable to conventional diesel buses.
Fuel Cells convert hydrogen and oxygen to electricity, which then powers the bus's electric motor. Unlike batteries, fuel cells don't require lengthy recharging and have unlimited range with periodic stops to fill fuel tanks with hydrogen - similar to stopping for gasoline.
Instead of spewing noxious gases that form smog, the bus emits only pure, drinkable water.
"This proves that we have the technology to put zero-emission buses on the street," said James M. Lents, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "Now we need to take steps to make them economically viable."
AQMD's governing board is considering providing a $325,000 share of the cost for Ballard to build an advanced full-size, 40-foot-long fuel cell electric bus. Ballard officials hope to complete the bus within three years, then build a small test fleet and hopefully commercialize the technology by the end of the decade.
Some or all of the components for fuel cell buses could be made in Southern California, making the region a world leader in ultra-clean transportation technology. Southland businesses have already played a key role in building the first bus. SAIC of San Diego developed the computer-controlled propulsion, electrical and other systems. Ballard and SAIC officials used a chassis made by National Coach Corp. of Chino.
Diesel soot from today's urban transit buses is a major source of particle pollution. Recent studies indicate that particle pollution in the United States is responsible for up to 60,000 deaths a year. Fuel cell technology could wipe out bus pollution without the cost and unsightliness of overhead electric trolley wires.
Fuel cell electric buses could also spur development of zero-emission cars, an essential ingredient in AQMD's blueprint to make Southern California's air healthy to breathe by 2010. They could solve the limited range problem of battery electric vehicles.
"Motor vehicles cause more than half of our smog," Lents said. "To clean the air in this basin, we must have much cleaner cars, buses and trucks."
Hydrogen is more than a zero-emission fuel. It can also be made from a pollution-free process. Engineers at the University of California, Riverside, are now making hydrogen from water in an electrolysis unit powered by the sun through photovoltaic cells. The demonstration project is partially funded by $350,000 from AQMD.
Lents said the fuel cell electric bus is the harbinger of the hydrogen era, when an abundant, pollution-free form of energy will be readily available. The United States will no longer depend on foreign nations for energy supplies. Unlike fossil fuels such as coal and oil, hydrogen contains no carbon and will not contribute to global warming.
"It's time to set our sights on the ultimate smog weapon," Lents said. "This fuel cell electric bus will help drive us toward this goal."