How Terrella Energy Systems is making the most of a miracle material—graphite

Terrella's innovative graphite manufacturing process arose from work that founder John Kenna did at fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems

Credit: Terrella

Terrella’s roll-embossing technology, which produces corrosion-resistant plates, arose from work that founder John Kenna did at fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems

John Kenna began his career designing and making cool high-tech stuff, only to shift to the less sexy but equally vital world of manufacturing. In 1992, the American mechanical engineer joined Ballard Power Systems, which was putting Vancouver on the map as the global centre for hydrogen fuel cell technology. The pace of innovation was furious, he recalls. Kenna eventually headed a team looking into the use of corrosion-resistant graphite for bipolar plates; the business end of fuel cells, these components collect heat and manage water, among other functions. But making graphite-coated plates was slow and expensive. Tackling this problem became the mother of invention, prompting Kenna to leave Ballard in 2012 and launch Terrella Energy Systems Ltd. out of a small shop in Mission.

To Kenna, graphite is a miracle material—malleable, conductive and impervious to corrosion. For the past four years, he’s been fine-tuning roll-embossing technology that can bulk produce graphite-embossed bipolar plates at a much lower cost than traditional stamping presses. (According to Kenna, one fuel cell has roughly 900 plates, and roll-embossing churns out a plate every three seconds, compared to one every 20 seconds for a stamp.) But most important, this method has applications elsewhere in the cleantech realm, in particular for heat exchangers and heat sinks (devices that absorb excessive or unwanted heat). “I knew that I’d have a tough time getting people excited about investing in fuel cell technology,” Kenna says.

Terrella is a lean outfit, with three full-time employees, but Kenna is leveraging a research partnership through SFU’s Laboratory for Alternative Energy Conversion. Headed by engineering professor Majid Bahrami, the lab secured $700,000 in Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding and united Terrella with Burnaby-based telecom and electronics manufacturer Alpha Technologies Ltd. and Vancouver’s Westport Innovations, a specialist in natural-gas engines and vehicles, to explore the estimated US$40-billion market for graphite thermal management products. Although Terrella has orders for graphite bipolar plates, Kenna believes thermal will be the company’s hot ticket.