Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World. Tom Koppel. xii + 276 pages. John Wiley & Sons, 1999. $29.95.
Few technologies have the potential to change the world for the better as quickly as the fuel cell, which offers a potentially nonpolluting and renewable way to generate electricity to power cars, buses, houses and businesses. This book tells the fascinating story of the development of the Ballard fuel cell and how a small Canadian company grew to world-class stature and went on to form partnerships with some of the largest companies in the world.
Tom Koppel is well acquainted with the company (Ballard Power Systems), fuel cell technology and the key individuals who made Ballard the world leader in the development of proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. A science and business writer, he first visited the Vancouver company in 1989 and has followed its progress ever since. As a result, he knows much about its inner workings and the personalities of its managers.
This book will appeal to a wide audience. It offers an intriguing account of how Geoffrey Ballard and his partners seized on PEM fuel cell technology when no one else was interested ("It just sort of fell onto the table," Ballard would later say) and then developed it into something commercially viable. Koppel traces the evolution of the company and PEM fuel cell technology, beginning with Ballard's struggle to fund his first battery-research efforts after leaving the U.S. Army in 1974. Some key events in the company's history were as follows: In 1984, Ballard first obtained funding from the Canadian government to study fuel cells; in 1995, the company succeeded in developing fuel cell stacks that exceeded the power density of 1,000 watts per liter that the U.S. government had estimated was required for automotive use; and in 1997, Daimler-Benz purchased a 25 percent stake in the company for about $200 million.
The book often quotes key players in the Ballard story, including Ballard himself, cofounders Paul Howard and Keith Prater, and Firoz Rasul, who was later brought in as president and CEO. These quotations do much to reveal character and yield insight into the challenges and politics of bringing a company from "ground zero" to global attention and recognition. Koppel does well not to limit himself to a portrayal of Geoffrey Ballard as the brilliant and quick-witted visionary known to those who have met him or heard him speak. Koppel reveals Ballard's impatience with incompetence?"he does not suffer fools gladly"?and the personal struggles that he faced when the company grew beyond his ability to manage it. One of the more difficult decisions Ballard and his partners had to make was to turn over management of the company to Rasul in order to transform it from a research laboratory into a high-volume manufacturing company. Ballard says that he has "always tried to work my way out of a job," but perhaps even he underestimated the difficulty of letting go of a creation so compelling.
Howard is depicted as a steady engineer, who with hard work, determination and a broad smile led the development of the first bus powered by a Ballard fuel cell. Prater is portrayed as a brilliant electrochemist who has done much to advance basic PEM fuel cell technology.
The book is entertaining and generally nontechnical, but it does sprinkle in enough detail to interest scientists and engineers. I strongly recommend it for those in or out of the energy and transportation fields. However, those searching for a highly technical discussion of fuel cell technology may be disappointed in the book's lack of depth in that area. They would be well advised to search the literature for more information, as this topic is likely to become more prominent in the near future.?Timothy E. Lipman, Fuel Cell Vehicle Center, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California at Davis