Canadian Defense Submarine Project with Ballard Shelved

October 25, 2004 by Jeff Shepard

The Canadian Navy paid Ballard Power Systems Inc. (Vancouver, BC, Canada) more than $12 million to develop a high-tech fuel cell propulsion system for its submarines, then shelved the project when the company lost interest, according to notes obtained under the Access to Information Act. The Defense Department invested the money through Ballard Power Systems between 1983 and 1996.

The technology, called air-independent propulsion (AIP), allows diesel-electric submarines to stay underwater for weeks at a time. Without such a system, submarines must rise to periscope depth every day or so to recharge batteries, because the diesel engines cannot run without being vented through a snorkel. A fuel cell propulsion system produces no fumes.

The Defense Department is not forthcoming about how much money it spent developing the project. Briefing notes from 1996 report that the navy paid Ballard $12 million for research and development on the project, beginning in 1983. Industry Canada also lent the company $30 million. Ballard developed a working 50 kW prototype, an "exploratory development model," for the Defense Department that it demonstrated in 1998. Ballard then lost interest in the project, as it moved into manufacturing fuel cells for automobiles, and declined to do any more work for Defense. Earlier this year, it delivered the prototype to a Defense Department research facility at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.

The Defence Department had to pull back because Ballard pulled out," stated Major Tony White. "As I understand it, over time, Ballard started to get more interested in the car industry and whatnot, and they at some point said they were no longer interested in pursuing the submarine application, and as we lost our submarine partner, we have reduced our focus on AIP to simply keeping an eye on the market."

"Ballard is prepared to revisit AIP if DND would like to," said Steve Kukucha, Ballard's director of external affairs. "But at the time we finished the prototype, we determined it would be best to move into other areas, from a corporate strategic perspective."