Geoffrey Ballard’s Dream Lives On

Ballard Power Systems, which began developing fuel cells as alternative energy for automobiles but moved into other areas, is at it again under a new agreement.

It’s heartening to see that Ballard Power Systems is back in the game of using its fuel cells in automobiles.

Ballard announced this week that it had struck a $60-$100-million deal with Volkswagen Group for the development of fuel cells to be used in demonstration cars.

For some time, Ballard has moved away from automotive fuel cell development in favour of other lines of business, most notably fuel cells for backup power and materials handling.

The move was necessitated by business realities. Ballard’s initial thrust was to develop fuel cell engines that would replace or augment oil-based power in cars, but it never took off and Ballard struggled to find a market after automobile companies pulled back their development support.

Since then Ballard’s only involvement in the automotive sector is a small bus division.

But founder Dr. Geoffrey Ballard’s vision was always to replace the pollutant-belching internal combustion engine, particularly in automobiles. However, while they provided testing funds to Ballard Power, automobile companies never really shared Ballard’s magnificent obsession. They had billions invested in oil-based energy systems.

Ten years ago, while writing a segment of a book on Ballard, I interviewed him and he told me of his dream that two decades in the future, his fuel cell or some equivalent would replace the internal combustion engine.

We’re not there yet, but the electric car is now a reality and the fuel-electric hybrid is common in car fleets and with a growing number of individual drivers.

Ballard died in 2008 but now, it appears, Ballard Power is once again working with an automobile manufacturer — in this case, Volkswagen AG which is committed to the development of “clean energy fuel cell transportation alternatives,” said Juergen Leohold, head of group research for Volkswagen AG.

So Geoffrey Ballard’s dream isn’t dead. In fact it may be achieved within the timeline he envisioned.