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Powering the Future

Tom Koppel

Excerpted from Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World. Copyright (c) 1999 by Tom Koppel. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers, including, and from the Wiley Web site (or call 1-800-225-5945)

Our long-term goal is very simple," said California Governor Gray Davis outside the state capitol in Sacramento last April. "Zero emissions in the air. Zero. Nada. Nothing. Zip." A crowd had gathered to hear Davis announce a major new state initiative, and to see the latest non-polluting automobiles to be unveiled by Daimler-Chrysler and Ford. Running on electricity, the peppy performance of these cars dazzled the spectators. The two auto giants aim to have them in commercial production by 2003 or 2004. A new era of environmentally friendly transportation is about to begin.

At the heart of these vehicles is the Ballard fuel cell, the drastically improved version of an exotic and prohibitively expensive technology that was originally developed by General Electric for the US space program and then shelved. A fuel cell is like a battery, but better. It requires no overnight charging. It reverses the familiar high school science experiment in which electricity is put through water to produce hydrogen and oxygen. In a Ballard fuel cell, a polymer plastic membrane coated with platinum separates two flat electrodes. Hydrogen flows in on one side, oxygen from the air on the other. They combine to form water so pure you can drink it and generate electricity without combustion and nasty emissions.

The story began in 1975 in Arizona cactus country with Dr. Geoffrey Ballard, a tenacious and idealistic Canadian geophysicist who had directed lab research for the US Army. Ballard poked his way through a derelict motel a short walk from the Mexican border and held his nose. He needed a cheap laboratory in which to pursue his dream of finding an alternative to the gas-guzzling internal combustion engine. He bought the motel for $ 2000 and burned the filthy mattresses, but the building still stank, so he persuaded the local fire department to come for a training exercise. Watching their hoses blast the place clean, Ballard planned the layout of his lab, and how he would go about reducing the world's over-consumption of fossil fuels.

For the first few years, Ballard and a few partners and cronies tried to develop a lightweight, long-lasting rechargeable battery to run electric cars. They soldiered away on shoestring budgets, stumbling upon exotic chemicals and nearly blowing themselves up in the process. Their families pitched in and made financial sacrifices. Eventually, operations were moved to North Vancouver, where the company went bankrupt and was then revived for a fresh start.

The battery never worked well enough, but it turned out that the Canadian military wanted a fuel cell developed as a quiet power source with low infrared emissions. With its battery expertise, Ballard Power Systems was ideally suited to take on the project. Funding was just half a million dollars for the first two years, only enough to set up a three-man technical team in an industrial bay next door to an auto body shop. They took the abandoned GE fuel cell--the patents were running out--and searched for ways to improve its power and build it out of much cheaper materials.

It was a case of small in fact being beautiful. The atmosphere encouraged casual creativity, feet up and exchanging ideas over coffee. There was little corporate bureaucracy to slow them down, no need to justify themselves or file endless reports. If something didn't work, they sent out for pizza and beer, stayed up till midnight and tried an alternative approach. One time, not expecting much, they replaced a membrane made by Dupont with one from Dow Chemical and left the cell running. To their amazement, it generated four times the previous power. As they watched, a finger-thick electric cable got so hot the copper strands began to melt and fuse. They hooted and jumped around. With this drastic boost in power, the electric car suddenly seemed feasible. This made the company attractive to the first private venture capitalist, Mike Brown, who brought in over a million dollars in financing to replace the military funding. Progress continued to be rapid; in all, the cell's power was boosted fifty-fold in about 12 years. When an additional ten million dollars was required, though, Brown and his financial colleagues insisted that Geoffrey Ballard and his partners chemist Keith Prater and engineer Paul Howard move a bit to the sidelines. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but they wanted to see the fuel cell brought to the major world markets within their lifetimes, and recognized that they lacked the entrepreneurial skills to negotiate the key alliances with larger players needed to do so.

In came a savvy engineer with marketing experience named Firoz Rasul, who has been CEO of Ballard Power for the last ten years. (Geoffrey Ballard remained as board chairman until the end of 1997.) Rasul built the company from 37 employees in 1989 to over 500 today and took it public in 1993. He forged a key strategic alliance with Germany's Daimler-Benz corporation, which put Ballard cells into a series of impressive prototype vehicles. Until then, most other automobile companies had been sceptical about fuel cells. Meanwhile, Ballard built its own series of fuel cell transit buses, which are already in service in Vancouver and Chicago.

When Daimler and Ford made a billion-dollar investment in Ballard, taking a 35% stake, the world really took notice. Ballard share price soared 1100 percent in three years, and Rasul was named Canadian CEO of 1997 by a prestigious headhunting firm. Meanwhile, California regulations required that 10% of new cars sold in the state after 2003 be zero emission vehicles. The DaimlerChrysler/Ford/Ballard alliance promised that it would have fuel cell cars on the road to meet that mandate. General Motors and Toyota announced that they, too, would have fuel cell cars on the road around 2004. "The starting pistol in the race to produce the first fuel-cell car has been fired," said Juergen Hubbert, head of Daimler's car division.

Today, Ballard Power is acknowledged as the world leader in fuel cell technology. "It's an astounding leap," says David Scott, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria and a leading fuel cell expert. "The fuel cell will have an impact on transportation comparable to that of the microchip on communications."

Geoffrey Ballard, now retired, recently received the Order of Canada. His advice when he speaks to university students: "Do not be patient. All things do not come to those who wait. Dare to be in a hurry to change things for the better."

Tom Koppel is a magazine feature writer. He lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. He can be reached by e-mail at .

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