Scientific American  [Printer-friendly version]
November 18, 2002


By Tariq Malik

For more than 20 years Geoffrey Ballard, chairman of Vancouver's
General Hydrogen, has led the charge for hydrogen-based fuel cells,
which produce electricity to power vehicles, with essentially only
water vapor for emissions. For his efforts in the past year, he
received the Scientific American 50's award for business leader of the

A geophysicist by training, the 70-year-old Ballard turned to fuel
cell research in the late 1970s to address the growing levels of smog
in large cities. Fuel cells, he says, are cleaner than the internal
combustion engines in gasoline-burning cars and can reduce the health
impacts of automobile air pollution if in wide use.

The trick, he adds, is to introduce hydrogen-based fuel cells in a way
that doesn't disrupt the current automobile market economy and to find
a common ground between car manufacturers and environmental
legislators. Toward that end, he cofounded General Hydrogen in 1999 to
determine the best way to make hydrogen into a popular, accessible
fuel. We asked Ballard to reflect on the potential of fuel cells. --
Tariq Malik

SA: Why choose hydrogen-based fuel cells as an energy source for

GB: Hydrogen is a very clean-burning fuel. It reduces down to water
when you run it through a fuel cell, meaning no emissions. It can also
be manufactured in a central place then doled out for use. This would
allow us to keep any pollution caused by actually generating hydrogen,
whatever that method may be, in one location, away from cities and out
of the people's lungs.

I find the most important thing that we have to be concerned about is
air pollution in our inner cities. There's a growing need to curb car
emissions in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and
internationally, places like Mexico City and Kuala Lumpur.

The other thing is that fuel cells, like internal-combustion engines,
are scaleable to the amount of power you want. In cars today, if you
want more power, you get a bigger engine. And if you want to go
farther, all you need is a bigger gas tank. Unlike electric cars,
whose batteries are good for things like golf carts and small Post
Office vehicles, fuel cells can be scaled like internal combustion
engines, and they're cleaner.

SA: How has your work has affected the general push toward developing
alternative fuels?

GB: Nobody was really too enthusiastic about the fuel cell at first,
not until we put one in a bus and drove it around at energy
conventions. I think people just couldn't grasp that it could really
happen. But when you put a hydrogen fuel cell in something and then
drive it around--well, it's pretty hard to argue with that.

Now almost every major manufacturer--General Motors, Toyota, you name
it--is looking into the idea of a commercial fuel cell vehicle. There
is definitely an interest there, and the larger companies wouldn't
commit to the research unless they thought there might be a payoff

SA: What are the challenges that you and others face in developing
fuel cell technology?

It comes down to reliability and cost. We've already demonstrated that
it's possible to make hydrogen-based fuel cells, The chief engineering
problem of affordably integrating a dependable hydrogen-based fuel
cell into a car will have to be solved by automobile makers. But the
other problem is: Once you've got a fuel cell in your car, where do
you get the hydrogen?

That's a big problem, because there are no hydrogen stations around
ever corner. We're working on ways to address that infrastructure need
without disrupting the existing car economy. This is important,
especially since the automotive and fuel industry make up an entire
third of the North American economy. You can't just play games with

SA: What are you hoping to avoid as you continue your work?

The idea of the social disruption or established markets by the rapid
introduction of fuel cells is something I take very seriously. When
the first cars were first introduced, around the time of horse and
buggies, towns in Massachusetts required drivers to have people
running along in front them with red lanterns in hand to warn horse
owners of possible backfires. ADVERTISEMENT

There were dire predictions of 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, and we have a number of strategies that we're
working on to incorporate this technology as a major tool for

SA: When do you expect to see commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicles
on city streets?

I don't like predicting these things, because you can always turn out
to be wrong. Current automobile makers seem to think they can have a
fuel cell vehicle in showrooms by the end of the decade, so it may be
possible. But it has to come about; there's just no denying that.

I do think, however, that the personally owned, privately housed
family car will be the last thing to receive a hydrogen fuel cell to
drive it, simply because a better place to start is with government
vehicles. City vehicles are generally housed in central yards or
garages where they can be serviced and fueled as needed. It's just
more practical at the beginning that way.

Tariq Malik is based in New York City.

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