Honorary degree citation - Geoffrey E.H. Ballard*
By: Patricia Thornton, June 2001
Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you distinguished scientist, visionary, innovator, and environmentalist, Dr. Geoffrey Ballard.
Inspired by a vision of a cleaner atmosphere and a future not tied to the internal combustion engine with its dependence on petroleum, Geoffrey Ballard has worked at developing new technologies based on alternative renewable energy sources for close to 30 years. In the process he has made Canada a world leader in this knowledge-based industry. He is widely seen as the feisty David on the brink of slaying the oil and automotive industry Goliath: to the point that nine of the leading automobile manufacturers and two oil companies have invested hundreds of millions in his technology. His story teaches us many lessons. Basic scientific research can solve major societal and environmental problems. But science alone is insufficient without the far-sighted vision of one who can see a way to a better future which takes many decades to achieve. Along the way it is necessary to be flexible and be ready to make changes, and yet to have the conviction and tenacity to ignore the ridicule of sceptics and to continue on when times are tough. It also requires the idealism, audacity, and impatience of youth coupled with the wisdom of experience to transform a vision into reality. Dr. Ballard has taught us all these things.
Geoffrey Ballard, the son of an electrochemist from Niagra Falls, Ontario, was educated as an engineering geologist at Queen's University, and then went south of the border to earn his doctorate at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and do a postdoc at Harvard. From there he worked for the U.S. army in specialties ranging from microwave communications to ice physics (he studied how to hide bomber refuelling tanks in Greenland). After the 1974 energy crisis hit, he became head of the new Federal Energy Conservation Research office in Washington, but was frustrated when Congress refused to get serious about weaning the U.S. from imported oil.
Disheartened by the short-sightedness of Governments and realizing that they were unlikely to fund important discoveries in alternative energy that would take decades to develop, Ballard resigned and, in 1979, he started his own company in a trailer in the Arizona desert. There he began his quest to find an environmentally friendly replacement for the internal combustion engine. His first business venture was to build a lithium-based "superbattery" to power an electric car. After five years and on the verge of bankruptcy, Ballard moved back to Canada, to North Vancouver. With two younger scientists as partners, he turned his attention to a different technology to power an electric car, that he believed had more hope than the battery-powered automobile to satisfy the North American driver's love affair with big cars - the hydrogen-powered fuel cell.
The fuel cell is a deceptively simple device, the principles of which were discovered more than 150 years ago: that hydrogen can be combined with oxygen to generate electricity without combustion, producing nothing more than clean water as a by-product. The proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell was originally developed by General Electric in the 1960s for use in the Gemini spacecraft, but it was thought to be far too expensive for practical use. After the patents expired and working under contract to the Canadian Forces, Geoffrey Ballard snapped up the challenge to turn the PEM fuel cell into a commercially viable alternative to the internal combustion engine.
Ballard Research started with a diverse network of scientific contacts. He organized these into small groups of committed scientists, giving them great freedom to experiment, to run tests on prototypes and make rapid changes. As a result they found cheaper, more effective components, re-machined and configured electrode plates and reduced the amount of expensive platinum required. Dr. Ballard's remarkable achievement has been to compress the size, increase the power and lower the cost of the fuel cell by about a thousandfold. *Working closely with regulatory bodies, the automotive industry and the oil industry, Ballard Research advanced their ideas on cleaning up the inner-city environment. The company's collaborative approach, without compromising its vision, has led to heavy investment in the fuel cell engine from the automotive industry.* The fuel cell is now being used to power zero-emission urban transit buses in Vancouver and Chicago, is being developed in conjunction with partners in Japan, France and the US for mini-stationary power plants and nine automotive investors have poured a billion dollars into Ballard's outlandish notion that the fuel cell will replace the internal combustion engine in the 21" century and with it eliminate the world's major source of air pollution. Dr. Ballard's dream has become a reality.
Transforming fuel cells from a utopian, pollution-free power source to a feasible, marketable technology required much more than scientific discovery. Along the way Dr. Ballard and his idealistic engineers had to cajole government agencies for grants, keep creditors at bay, and line up private sector investors. Now retired, he has yielded the final challenge to complete his dream to a new generation of scientists and business leaders to overcome the remaining obstacles to the mass production and mass marketing of the technology. But, without Dr. Ballard's far-sighted vision of a clean future and his audacity to take on the giant oil and automotive companies, all this would certainly not have been possible.
*Now retired from Ballard Power Systems, Dr. Ballard continues his steadfast work towards environmental solutions for our planet. He is chair of the General Hydrogen Corporation, which is dedicated to implementing the replacement of the internal combustion engine. He is also chair of the Canadian Hydrogen Association, and serves on numerous panels and boards in Canada and the United States. Dr. Ballard has received numerous environmental awards in recognition of his contributions to science and the environment, including the World Technology Network Award in Energy in 1999, and the Gothenberg International Environmental Prize from Sweden in 2000. In 1995, he received the Canadian Commemorative Medal. He is a member of the Order of Canada.*
As we embark on the new century it is almost impossible to conceive of a future without the internal combustion engine, which has dominated personal transportation in industrial countries for more than eight decades. And yet at the turn of last century none predicted the proliferation-of the automobile and the ascent of oil. Currently, Europe and North America, making up 20 percent of the world's population, enjoy the highest standards of living, while consuming 80 percent of the world's energy (almost all of it non-renewable) and contributing enormously to pollution and global warming. Motor vehicles in the United States account for 78% of all carbon monoxide emissions, 45% of nitrogen oxide emissions and 37% of volatile organic compounds in that country. Worldwide over a billion people living in urban areas suffer from severe air pollution resulting in more than 700,000 deaths annually. Moreover, each gallon of gasoline produced and used in an internal combustion engine releases roughly 25 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Energy use will soar as developing nations strive to increase their standard of living.
Dr. Ballard's thirty- year-long quest for a clean power source that would replace oil in cars, viewed as outlandish and idealistic when he set out, is an idea whose time has come. A century hence, when historians try to pinpoint the birth of the hydrogen age, will they focus on a Canadian, Geoffrey Ballard and his small Canadian high-tech research company that developed one of the few revolutionary and transforming technologies of our era - a clean alternative to the internal combustion engine that runs on the lightest and most abundant element in the universe? This technology should enable developing nations to bypass or "leapfrog" the worst effects of the twentieth century energy systems and position them to be at the forefront of the next energy system, not hostage to the last. Whatever happens, Dr. Ballard's work has already steered us on a course of progress towards a healthier, greener environment, and as founder of Ballard Power Systems, he will be seen as one of the major contributors to sustainable development this century.
Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors it is my privilege and an honour to present to you Geoffrey Ballard, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.