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Late Great Engineers: Geoffrey Ballard – fuel cell visionary


Canadian engineer Geoffrey Ballard held a passionate lifelong belief in the superiority of hydrogen-based fuel cells over the internal combustion engine in petroleum-burning cars. Written by Nick Smith. 

Looking back from a time when it is taken as axiomatic that ‘disruptive’ technology can only be a force for good, it seems quaint that the central tenet of Geoffrey Ballard’s vision for powering the world’s car fleet with hydrogen was that it should not be disruptive. Referring to when the first cars were introduced, Ballard explained: “there were dire predictions that every horse and buggy driver would be out of a job. It was a complete social disruption. That’s what I’m working to avoid.” The trick, he told Scientific American magazine two decades ago, was to introduce hydrogen-based fuel cells in a way that didn’t disrupt the automobile market economy, while finding common ground between car manufacturers and environmental legislators.

Geoffrey Ballard
Geoffrey Ballard Portrait image credit: Bradley Jones via Wikipedia

At the turn of the millennium, the geophysicist who was to become one of Time magazine’s ‘Heroes for the Planet’ founded General Hydrogen. His ambition was to find the best way to make hydrogen a popular and accessible fuel. Author of Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World Tom Koppel, referring to the hydrogen economy, wrote that Ballard “kick-started and expedited the movement.”

Geoffrey Edwin Hall Ballard was born in the Canadian city of Niagara Falls on 16th October 1932. His father Archibald was an electromechanical engineer who spent most of the Second World War at Oak Ridge working on the atomic bomb, while his mother Jessie was a member of the Rowntree family in the UK, renowned for the confectionary product Fruit Pastilles. In what appears to be an uneventful childhood, Ballard went to school in his hometown before attending Queen’s University, Ontario, where he read geological engineering and gained a bachelor’s degree. Graduating in 1956, Ballard entered the oil industry, leading reconnaissance trips – often exploring on horseback – for both Shell and Mobil. During this time, according to his obituary in the Washington Post, Ballard was to discover that his BSc credential wasn’t enough for him to be taken seriously by his colleagues, with the result that his findings were often ignored. Weary of oil exploration, he returned to academia, this time to pursue a doctorate in earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Armed with his PhD, in 1963 Ballard returned to the oil industry as a civilian in the US Army where he worked for a decade, during which time he investigated the feasibility of concealing fuel tanks under the Greenland icecap. When the Oil Crisis hit in 1973 – which would see the price of oil increase from US$3 per barrel to nearly $12 – the American government created the US Federal Energy Conservation Research office with Ballard, on secondment from the army, as its director. Once again, disillusionment was to set in as Ballard realised that the political system was not geared up to understand the differential between how long it took to see meaningful programmes to maturity and how quickly politicians wanted to see returns on public money. Ballard is reported as explaining that while the gestation of an energy project could be measured in decades, the political re-election cycle was counted in years: “politicians didn’t want to put money into systems that were going to come to fruition in some other generation. You sent out the plans, and they hacked and cut at them.”

Ballard’s time at the Conservation Research office had not been completely wasted in that it had seen his introduction to electric cars (the study he’d worked on investigated the use of conventional lead-acid batteries), which he became convinced were the future. Recalling this eureka moment towards the end of his life, Ballard was to tell Discover magazine that his goal instantly became the replacement of the internal combustion engine: “just getting that off the streets.” So convinced was he of the idea’s potential, Ballard cashed in his pension to set up the American Energizer company with Ralph Schwartz. The Arizona-based organisation focused on lithium batteries as a lead-acid alternative due to their weight advantage. Ballard and Schwartz joined forces with Keith Prater of the University of Texas to develop a simple battery into one that could be recharged.

Geoffrey Ballard
Ballard’s work paved the way for the widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cells. Oleksandr via stock.adobe.com

Wanting to return to Canada, Ballard sold part of his interest in American Energizer to Schwartz for a dollar, with Schwartz reciprocating. Ballard ended up with the battery side of the business, while Schwartz kept his mechanical anti-lock braking system. Ballard relocated to Vancouver, becoming CEO of Ultra Energy that was contracted to produce a non-rechargeable lithium battery for fire detector manufacturer Firenetics. With the battery ready for production, Firenetics filed for bankruptcy and Ultra Energy went bust.

The internal combustion engine will go the way of the horse. It will be a curiosity to my grandchildren

Geoffrey Ballard (1932-2008)

Ultra Energy immediately resurfaced under the banner of Ballard Research in 1979, founded by the ever-entrepreneurial Ballard, along with Prater and Paul Howard. The company’s original mission was to conduct R&D into high-energy lithium batteries, and while investigating environmentally-clean energy systems, Ballard began working on the development of proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Although PEMs weren’t new – the technology had been tested by General Motors and had been integrated into NASA’s Gemini spaceflight program – they were hardly common currency, with Ballard himself (almost certainly apocryphally) asking the world in general “what’s a fuel cell?” when the topic was first raised. Prototype followed prototype and by 1986 the company had succeeded in making a fuel cell stack operating on pressurised air that could generate four times as much energy per unit volume as any previous fuel cell.

By the end of the 1980s, having worked for almost a decade to increase the power and reduce the size of the fuel cell, Ballard felt that his technology was mature enough to be put to commercial use and set about raising investment capital to build the hydrogen powered bus that was introduced at Science World in 1993. Ballard subsequently exhibited the bus at energy fairs around the world, demonstrating the potency of what the world regarded as a fringe technology. In 1997, German car maker Daimler invested $320 million in the recently-formed Ballard Power Systems, while the Ford Motor Company put in $420 million more.

One of Ballard’s legacies is that other car companies, concerned about being left behind, began their own research into fuel cells. In 1998, the Chicago Transit Authority and BC Transit (Vancouver) each installed three Ballard-powered fuel cell buses into their regular fare-paying services for a two-year demonstration and testing programme. By 2003 there were 30 fuel cell buses in revenue service operating in ten European cities including London, Barcelona and Madrid. Elsewhere, they could be seen as far afield as Reykjavik and Beijing.

Reflecting on the success of his bus as a marketing tool, Ballard said: “Nobody was really too enthusiastic about the fuel cell at first. But when you put a hydrogen fuel cell in something and then drive it around well, it’s pretty hard to argue with that.” And yet, Ballard did argue with it. He accepted hydrogen’s well-documented problems: a lack of infrastructure to supply the fuel, production costs at least ten times greater than for a comparable petrol engine and an environmental footprint in the form of the significant electrical output needed to produce the hydrogen. Not only that, leaking hydrogen can be dangerously volatile.

Waiting for fuel-cell cars to arrive in American driveways, Ballard remained steadfast in his belief in the superiority of hydrogen over petroleum-based fuels. He argued that governments would one day have to adopt alternative fuel technology and develop experimental fleets of vehicles long before economies of scale could make the fuel cell car an affordable option for the everyday driver. In this Ballard was ultimately a realist who publicly doubted that he would “ever see a hydrogen car for personal consumption in a showroom.” When he died in 2008 at the age of 75, that was entirely true. And yet, Ballard’s real achievement may not have been so much the technology he created, but the fact that his company became a bellwether in the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power cars and other vehicles, helping to make inroads into the dominance of the fossil-fuel powered engine.

While Ballard’s fuel cell buses can’t be said to have taken over the world, by 2005 they had notched up their first million kilometres and had set the bar for the world’s largest fleet of its kind at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Furthermore, as his biographer Tom Koppel puts it, Ballard “showed the fuel cell could be improved, made more compact and powerful, at relatively little cost, and that the hydrogen economy was a long-term concept for governments to aspire to.”



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