APTA | Passenger Transport
September 8, 2008

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Geoffrey Ballard, Developer of Hydrogen Fuel Cells, Dies at 76 in Vancouver
Susan R. Paisner, Senior Managing Editor

Hydrogen fuel cells are such a part of today’s common language that if you Google that phrase, you will bring forth 531,000 hits. 

These days, people take this technology for granted.  But if not for the focused, determined efforts of Geoffrey Ballard, who died last month at age 76 in North Vancouver, Canada, there might be no such thing.  Because Dr. Ballard was the developer of hydrogen fuel cells, and he used them to build an emissions-free public transportation bus that knocked the air out of the automobile industry in particular when it was unveiled in 1993.

Calling him a “pioneer” and a “visionary,” Jaimie Levin, Director of Alternative Fuels Policy for AC Transit of Oakland, CA, termed this technology “clearly transformative.”  While still not yet viable for mass manufacture, Levin said that the hydrogen fuel cell is “the future of our industry,” citing both its efficiency and environmental.  A bus operating with this technology is, he said, “almost as quiet as a golf cart.”

According to his son Mark, Ballard saw the gasoline crisis in the 1970s as a tell-tale sign for the need to change fuels.  “We have to burst into the hydrogen age,” he would frequently tell his children, “or else we’ll kill the planet.”  Dr. Ballard spent a great deal of his time trying to devise ways of obtaining hydrogen without burning coal.  “If you’re burning fossil fuels to get hydrogen to cease burning fossil fuels,” he often said, drily, “your efficiency is not that good.”

Paul Howard, an engineer and builder and a co-founder of Ballard Power Systems, was Dr. Ballard’s long time partner and best friend.  The company manufactured fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, which can be stored in high capacity batteries on board.  By 1989 the company demonstrated that a hydrogen fuel cell, approximately 3 kw in size (equivalent to 4 horsepower), could light lights.  The next year, “Geoff had the view that in order for the public to really understand this – we had to do something quite visual and significant.  And he said: ‘Why don’t we put this into a bus?’”

Dr. Ballard’s reasoning, Howard said, was that a bus shared many similarities with a car:  They both moved people, they both used wheels, and they both used roads.  But when they told their engineers what they were going to do, Howard said, “most of them thought it was folly and would fail.  It was too big.”  Because they were talking about a passenger vehicle, the power/weight ratio was critical, which is why they spent so much time making the fuel cell smaller but with more power output.  

Dr. Ballard believed that public transportation was a viable way of bringing the hydrogen age to the marketplace.  In addition to the bus being “very relatable” to the average consumer, it had one main element that solved a huge chicken/egg type problem.  And that was – the car companies would not manufacture a vehicle if the owners could not easily “fill it up” at a nearby station, and the oil companies would not set up hydrogen fueling stations if there were no cars being made to use them.  Because buses refueled in a central depot, there would be a need for only one hydrogen refueling station.

“So public transit answered a bunch of questions that the car could not yet evolve to,” said Mark Ballard.  When in 1993 the first hydrogen fuel cell powered, zero-emission bus was unveiled in Vancouver – with Dr. Ballard, his 8-year-old grandson, and Vancouver officials drinking the emissions from this bus in champagne glasses – the automakers took notice.  “After that,” said Mark Ballard, “all the major players then got involved – with massive contracts.”  When Ballard Power Systems went public, Daimler-Chrysler and Ford bought a one-third share in the company – for many millions.  Dr. Ballard ceased active management of that company in 1998. 

Geoffrey Ballard, who risked his professional career on creating a non-polluting source of energy, was born near Niagara Falls in Ontario.  His undergraduate studies were in geological engineering at Queen’s University in Ontario, and he received a Ph.D. in geophysics from Washington University in St. Louis in 1963.  Dr. Ballard received many honors, including the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia.  Time magazine recognized him in 1999 as a “Hero for the Planet,” Scientific American magazine named him its Business Leader of the Year in 2002, and Discover magazine and the Economist gave him their innovations awards in 2002 and 2003.  He is survived by his wife Shelagh and three sons, Curtis, Mark, and Ed.

Dr. Ballard’s steadfastness has become his legacy.  Because of him, thousands of people have purchased hybrid vehicles to reduce dependence on foreign oil and hydrogen fuel cell powered buses have the potential to transform the public transportation industry. 

And in 2010, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver will be served by a full 20 bus fleet of hydrogen fuel cell zero emission buses – the largest single fleet in one place – ever.

As Mark Ballard said: “It’s kind of funny as a legacy to sit there as the son of our dad to find his work talked about at the Olympics and starting to be ingrained in the fabric of our society.”

In 1999, Dr. Ballard told Time magazine that science colleagues once “embarrassed to be seen with me at professional symposia” began asking him to speeches. “Be impatient,” he counseled students at British Columbia's University of Victoria as he accepted an honorary degree in 1998.  “Challenge the normal. Dare to be in a hurry to change things for the better.”

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