Monday May 24, 199 - 1:37 AM ET

Ballard Fuel-Cell Buses Unhindered By Hindenberg
By Allan Dowd VANCOUVER (Reuters) -

Fears of the ``Hindenberg syndrome'' could hinder deployment of fuel-cell-powered buses have evaporated, according to developers of the environmentally friendly vehicles. Ballard Power Systems Inc. (Nasdaq:BLDP - news) and DaimlerChrysler AG (NYSE:DAJ - news)., whose fuel-cell buses are the leaders in the field, said Thursday that research shows wide acceptance of the vehicles and that they could be on the commercial market sooner than they had expected.

Public horror following the explosion of the hydrogen-powered airship Hindenberg in New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people, ended the great age of the airship. Fuel-cell powered buses use hydrogen as a fuel and the developers had been worried that public concern at seeing hydrogen tanks on top of the buses would make it difficult to get the vehicles into world mass-transit fleets. ``We were so surprised, really. Not the mechanical people, not the drivers, not the passengers are caring about this,'' said Ferdinand Panik, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice-president for fuel cell technology, told reporters after Ballard's annual meeting Thursday.

Panik, a member of Ballard's board of directors, had earlier won shareholders' applause when he announced that commercial marketing of fuel-cell engines for buses could begin as early as 2002, up to two years sooner than some previous predictions.

Fuel cells use hydrogen to make electricity through a chemical reaction involving oxygen and a catalyst. The only byproduct is water, so they have hailed an the environmentally friendly alternative to the internal combustion engine. Experimental fuel-cell powered buses are being tested in Chicago and Vancouver. They are easy to spot, with nine fuel tanks holding compressed hydrogen in a rectangular box on their roofs. ``This Hindenberg syndrome was something that wasn't existing,'' Panik said, referring to research done by his company.

Ballard Chief Operating Officer Layle ``Kip'' Smith said testing of the buses has gone better than expected in terms of mechanical issues. The companies have said they expect fuel-cell powered buses to hit the commercial market before fuel-cell passenger cars do, in part, because per-vehicle costs is less of the concern in entering the mass transit market.

DaimlerChrysler hopes begin limited commercial production of fuel-cell powered cars in 2004 or 2005. It is one of several companies involved in a project to test fuel cell vehicles in California.

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