FEATURES • Winter 2002


Alumnus Geoffrey Ballard is on a crusade to replace the internal combustion engine with hydrogen fuel cells—and the movement is gaining ground.

By C.B. Adams

Mr. McGuire: "Ben, I just want to say one word to you—just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes, sir."
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes, sir. I am."
Mr. McGuire (gravely): "Plastics."
They look at each other for a moment.
Benjamin: "Exactly how do you mean?"
Mr. McGuire: "There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
Benjamin: "Yes, I will."

—From the final draft of the script for The Graduate

If moviemakers ever remake The Graduate, Geoffrey E. H. Ballard would be the perfect man to play Mr. McGuire. But instead of "Plastics," Mr. McGuire would say to Benjamin, "Hydrogen."

Ballard, who received a doctorate in earth and planetary sciences from Washington University in 1963, is a big promoter and an even bigger believer in the coming-soon-to-a-decade-near-you hydrogen economy. In his vision of this new world energy order, which is shared by a growing list of scientists, government officials, and businessmen, hydrogen would replace petroleum products to power our cars, trucks, buses, and other vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, into electricity. And unlike petroleum products, the only by-products of the process are heat and water.

Ballard is a bit like a fuel cell himself. He has converted a lifetime of experiences into two successful businesses. He was born in Niagara Falls on the Ontario, Canada, side, where he spent idyllic summers canoeing, drinking water from pure streams, and enjoying the great outdoors. He attended Queen's University in Ontario and majored in geological engineering.

"That was the only degree in which I could be actively engaged in the outdoors," Ballard says. "I had a fear of graduating and being put into an office at that age. I have been an environmentalist all my life, and I have always been interested in the ways man-made things interface with planet Earth."

After he graduated in 1956, Ballard worked for Mobil Oil as a field geologist in the Middle East. Two years of dust, mule teams, and packing a pistol prompted him to write his professors at Queen's University, inquiring about an advanced degree in geological engineering. They steered him to Washington University in St. Louis, one of the few schools in North America offering such advanced studies.

With his Ph.D. in hand, Ballard joined the U.S. Department of Defense. During the next 10 years, he worked in an assortment of fields, including ice physics and glaciology, microwave communications, and materiel command. In 1974 at the start of the oil crisis, he participated in a six-month study of energy self-sufficiency for the Office of Energy Conservation.

"I came to the conclusion that the United States wasn't going to do a great deal about replacing the internal combustion engine, so I struck out on my own," Ballard says.

Ballard drained his pension fund and purchased a run-down hotel in Arizona that he turned into a laboratory. At the time, he and his technical team thought the best alternative to the internal combustion engine would be lithium batteries. Seven years and a bankruptcy later, he realized he was wrong.

"There is still a long list of advocates of batteries in the world today, but they haven't spent the time in the field trying to meet the requirements of the modern buyers of an automobile," he says. "I do not believe we are going to change the world by driving something that is the equivalent of a golf cart. To be successful with a new technology in the automotive world, you have to satisfy the specific needs of the person buying the automobile."

In 1983, Ballard pulled together a new technical team and began looking at experimenting with fuel cells. Fuel cells are not exactly the new energy kid on the block. They have a history reaching back 150 years. They were even used successfully in the Gemini space program to provide power to onboard electrical systems. The challenge was to make fuel cells that were lighter, smaller, and cheaper.

Ballard and his team did just that. In the early 1990s, Ballard raised $4.2 million to fund the project that placed hydrogen fuel cells in worldview. He designed, built, and put on the road the first bus that was powered by hydrogen fuel cells and was pollution free. People came from around the globe to ride this magic bus on its route in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"I was becoming very concerned about inner-city pollution and the hundreds of thousands of children whose lungs were going to be destroyed by pollution, in contrast to my own childhood in the 'Great White North,' enjoying fresh air and drinking from streams," he says.

In 1993, his company, Ballard Power Systems, Inc., went public. Not long after, DaimlerChrysler and Ford Motor Co. purchased a combined 35 percent of the company for $750 million. In 1996, Daimler unveiled a minivan with Ballard fuel cells under its hood. The market for fuel cells shifted up a gear or two when the State of California passed a law requiring 10 percent of cars to have zero emissions by 2003. Since then, all of the major car companies have begun developing automobiles powered by fuel cells.

Ballard, ever trolling for new challenges, retired from Ballard Power Systems in 1997. Two years later, he founded General Hydrogen Corporation—with his former partner Paul Howard and Michael Routtenberg (a co-founder of Xillix Technologies)—a company created to devise ways to deliver pure hydrogen to fuel-cell vehicles. That is, to develop the equivalent of today's ubiquitous gas pump.

The idea of hydrogen-powered vehicles sounds too good to be true. After all, can we really have the variety of powerful vehicles on the road today (around 800 million alone in the free world) without the internal combustion engine and without the proliferation of pollution and greenhouse gases? Can we really trade our gas-guzzling SUVs in for SUVs hopped up on hydrogen? Ballard, known as "The Bulldozer" by his business associates, gives a resounding "yes."

"There is no doubt in my mind that the world will convert to a hydrogen economy. It can happen 10 years earlier if we can get the world moving on it," he says.

For all his work and innovation, Ballard has received an array of accolades in recent years. He is the subject of the book Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World (John Wiley & Sons, 1999). In 2002, he received a Discover Magazine Innovation Award, which honors scientists who have revolutionized their fields. CBC Newsworld featured him as a Master of Modern Technology in 2001. In 1999, Ballard was designated a "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine. He received the World Technology Network Award for Energy and the Environment in 1999 and 2001, respectively. He also received the first-ever Göteborg International Environmental Prize from Sweden in 2000.

From obscure researcher and inventor to much-vaunted businessman and visionary, Ballard is now at a time and place in his career to ruminate on his success. "When I embarked 20 years ago on this idea of trying to replace the internal combustion engine and replace petroleum as the primary energy source for transportation, I knew my idea was not a very popular one. It has since become extremely popular because of the solution. I consider myself a visionary who was very, very fortunate to be born at the right place and the right time," he says.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

 

 

 

 

"I came to the conclusion that the United States wasn't going to do a great deal about replacing the internal combustion engine, so I struck out on my own," Ballard says.