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Fuel cell pioneer Geoffrey Ballard dies at 76
Geoffrey Ballard
Geoffrey Ballard

Geoffrey Ballard, a Canadian pioneer of the fuel cell industry and an entrepreneur Time magazine once named one of its "Heroes for the Planet," died on August 2, 2008. He was 76.

Ballard developed the world's first hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered, zero-emission transit bus. Science World, a science center in Vancouver, British Columbia, unveiled the vehicle in 1993.

In 1979, Ballard founded Ballard Power Systems Inc., which makes fuel cells that are used in materials handling, residential cogeneration, backup power and transportation. Until 1997, he was chairman of the company that bears his name.

Ballard's name "will forever be associated with this company's fuel-cell products, which are being deployed as an energy source for applications in a growing number of important global markets," said John Sheridan, president and chief executive of Ballard Power Systems.

A geophysicist by training, Ballard spent the first years of his career working for the U.S. Army, specializing initially in microwave communications and later in ice physics. In the latter role, he studied ways to hide fuel tanks for U.S. bombers in Greenland's ice fields.

When the energy crisis hit the United States in 1974, Ballard was chosen to lead the newly created Federal Energy Conservation Research program.

Stymied by Congress' refusal to provide what he considered adequate funding, he quit and set out on his own, buying a decrepit Arizona motel for $2,000 and turning it into a research laboratory. He initially tried to create a lithium battery that could be used instead of an internal-combustion motor in cars, but that effort led him into bankruptcy.

The company moved to Vancouver when it got a contract to provide a lithium battery for a submarine owned by Canadian industrialist John Horton, who agreed to provide funding for the company.

In 1983, Ballard teamed up with engineer Paul Howard and electrochemist Keith Prater to try to develop fuel cells, getting seed money from the Canadian military.

Conceptually, fuel cells are simple. Hydrogen and oxygen are combined in the presence of a catalyst to produce electricity, with the only waste product being water.

The concept for the technology was developed in the 1830s by British scientist Sir William Grove, but implementation had been slow and fuel cells proved to be either bulky and inefficient or very expensive.

The three entrepreneurs worked tirelessly to improve the efficiency of existing fuel cells and reduce their size and cost.

A breakthrough moment for the company came in summer 1989 while Ballard was relaxing in a spa at the Hollyburn Country Club in Vancouver with a British Columbia official. Ballard convinced the official that his company could produce a municipal bus that would run on hydrogen and emit only water vapor.

A recent story about Geoff Ballard in the LA Times notes that he recognized that fuel-cell cars could never be viable unless a distribution system could be established for hydrogen, so, in 1999 he started General Hydrogen to explore ways to manufacture and market the fuel. That company was bought by Plug Power Inc. last year.

Geoffry Ballard is acknowledged world-wide as the father of the fuel cell industry. But his humble mission in life was to use his unique intellect and far reaching vision, and combine his scientific, business, and environmental knowledge for the betterment of the world. While doing so, Geoffrey was awarded the 1st ever "Lifetime Achievement Award" by the World Energy Technology Summit in 2004. He is the only person to have won in two different categories; Energy in 1999 and Environment in 2001. He was recognized by The Economist with an "Innovation Award for Leadership in Energy and the Environment"; named "Business Leader of the Year" by Scientific American magazine; honored for "Energy Innovation" by Discovery magazine; featured as a "Master of Modern Technology" on CBC Newsworld; recognized as a "Pioneer of Innovation" by the Vancouver Board of Trade; and graced the cover of Time magazine as "Hero of the Planet. In December 2000, Geoffrey received the first ever "Goteborg International Environmental Prize" from Sweden.

He was awarded many honorary doctorates from universities, and Canada rewarded him with the Canadian Commemorative Medal in 1992. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999 and the Order of British Columbia in 2003.

Although Mr. Ballard never sought public recognition, his vision, clarity of thought, and strong sense of integrity influenced all who came in contact with him. He believed in "giving back" to his community and was an enthusiastic supporter and volunteer at Covenant House in Vancouver, British Columbia. He died peacefully, surrounded by his family on August 2, 2008. Geoff will be missed greatly, and remembered by many of us for fuel cell innovations that continue to have an impact on our planet.