Saturday, October 21, 2006

Book Review: Powering the Future *)

Title : Powering the Future, the Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World
Author : Tom Koppel
Publisher : John Wiley & sons Canada Ltd
Year of Publication : 1999
Number of pages : 276

About the author
Tom Koppel is an award-winning freelance writer and one of the most respectable documentation book writers in Canada. He has contributed feature articles on business, science, history, environment and travel to national magazines in Canada, Germany, Russia and the U.S. for nearly twenty years.

Although he has bachelor degree in economics from University of Pennsylvania and doctoral degree in Political Science from university of Wisconsin, his writing is commonly about science, nature, and environment. In order to write this book he has been following the story of the Ballard fuel cell for over ten years, and first wrote about it for over ten years. He lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Amazon.com named this book as one of the ten best business books of 1999. The author was also the finalist for Canada's National Business Book Award for 2000. The first Japanese translation of this book was published in January 2001 and the Germany version in October 2001.

The reasons to choose this book
This sixteen chapters’ book provides some unrevealed success story of Ballard. How Ballard could convince the government of Canada for supporting them and captivate Daimler-Chrysler and Ford for using the fuel cell technology. I think it is a very good examples how the dynamics of society in developed countries, in this case Canada, has affected the growth of technology and industry. Furthermore, it also presents the strategy of Ballard Company in order to convince big car company (Daimler-Chrysler) for providing research resources for him and for using the research results in the mass productions. The big picture of the development of fuel cell can be easily found in this interesting book.
The other thing that made me choose this book is the author’s writing style. Each chapter flows smoothly and it was easy to understand even for beginners in science and technology.

Outline of the book
This book provides the history and the development process of the fuel cell. It starts with the dream of Geoffrey Ballard, a former chemistry scientist in United States Department of Defense, for establishing a company which focuses in the invention of new alternative energy. He thought that energy conservation problem was not seriously tackled by the government of America.

The real challenge, Ballard thought, was to find a better energy conversion system or device, a convenient and economical way of taking energy from an abundant source and converting it to a usable, and preferably portable form, especially for transportations and communications. Ballard realized that the other technology is developing very fast, but the power source technology remains in stagnant position. For example although vehicle technology becomes enormously advanced but the vehicle still needs fossil fuel for moving which also creates heavy pollutions around the world.

In the beginning, actually Ballard wanted to look at battery chemistries with much higher energy densities; in the other words, much lighter weight for a given power output. One of the main problems with conventional batteries for transportation is the weight of the lead and also the long recharging time. Ballard Company efforts were focused in this research since the establishment, not in fuel cell technology.

Although they succeeded in order to develop long life battery (alkaline), but still the real breakthrough was in 1983. In that year the government of Canada requested Ballard and partners to develop fuel cell. Most government and industry money for fuel cell development in the US, Japan, and Europe was going into other types of cells, especially the phosphoric acid fuel cell. With the human resources who have deep knowledge in electrochemistry and experience in alkaline battery research and development, Ballard has no competitors for developing Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell at that time. The other big advantage for Ballard because the General Electrics (GE) patents for fuel cell technology also had expired. After Ballard succeeded the reengineering and the refinement of the GE PEM fuel cell, they could own the intellectual property right for that fuel cell.

The success story was continued, when in 1997 Ballard was able to captivate Daimler-Chrysler and Ford, two biggest automobile companies in America, for supporting Ballard research and development of more advanced fuel cell. Ford and Daimler-Chrysler also settled an agreement that they will produce the first mass-production cars in 2004.

The fuel cell technology itself was nothing new. In fact, they had been around for well over a century, and electrochemistry itself had been known even longer. It dated back to the generation of electricity by mechanical means, which was first achieved by Michael Faraday in 1831, when he rotated a copper disk between the poles of a horseshoe magnet.

The fuel cell was the next big advance in electrochemistry. It was pioneered by Sir William Grove, a Welsh-born and Oxford-educated professor of physics. Grove showed that when steam came into contact with a heated platinum wire, it decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen. He realized that, just as he could use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, it should be possible to generate electricity by combining these two gases.

Grove’s invention largely languished until 1889, when Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer, also working in England, attempted to turn it into practical device. They were also the first person who called the device, a fuel cell. They replaced the oxygen with air and pure hydrogen with an impure industrial gas obtained from coal. They tried to improve the Grove’s invention. Their device generated 1.5 watts, but they decided it had little commercial potential, largely because of the high cost of platinum.

As a matter of a fact, in August 1965 the Gemini V spacecraft blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center into low earth orbit. It was the first manned space flight to rely on fuel cells as a source of electrical power. The cells were named PEM cells, which were developed and produced by GE, the same basic type that would be developed and refined to become the Ballard fuel cell.

With next several researches by some scientist, as example Francis T. Bacon, fuel cell technology was developed as one of the alternative power sources. Next milestone of fuel cell is reached when NASA and GE established cooperation for using fuel cell in Gemini space flight series. Although the fuel cell was extremely worthwhile and reliable GE would not even discount the eventual use to power automobiles, although the company conceded that size and cost would have to be brought down dramatically. GE put very limited resources into PEM and eventually sold its fuel cell division.

The correlation with the subject of this course
Powering the Future correlates very much with the objectives of this course. The establishment of Ballard to become the leading company in fuel cell technology begins from the small research company. After several years of loyalty and dedication, it becomes one of the companies which have the most expensive stock price in Canada stock exchange market.

Such a growth requires not only the development technologies, but also the progress of economy, society, and culture. This is again a very good example on how a new technology grew into a mature commercial technology and become indispensable for our life.

Lessons learn

Powering the Future not оnlу chronicles the company's impressive rise against stiff odds and intеnsе competition; it also teaches valuable lessons about vision and inspiration, creating a culture of loyalty and dedication, attracting and keeping talented people, and marketing and selling an underdog technology to the biggest players in the auto world. It is the entertaining and inspirational account of hоw a tiny high-tech research company grew, and became poised to literally change the way we live.

From business point of view, it is very interesting that a former chemistry scientist (Geoffrey Ballard) could enter the business with little knowledge of the object (fuel cells). But like other success stories of businessmen, he could pass through the crucial years of research and development with small staff and a small budget; and later on produced impressive results. To some extent, what Ballard did was similar to Sumitomo as semiconductor grade chemicals supplier. Both of them knew there was unbalanced between supply and demand in their respective fields. This situation opened the way to be successfully a great player in their business. I think Mr. Ballard is a perfect combination of an entrepreneur-scientist-marketer that could convince not only the market, but also the government of Canada.

One can argue that the author focuses too much on fuel cell dеvеlорmеnt and too little on the necessary hydrogen delivery infrastructure, which is required to operate the fuel cells. But from an environmental point of view, the fuel cell holds great promise as an energy source for the ecological millennium.

Even though this book is over-reliance on technical jargon and also lack an index, I believe that Mr. Koppel had a tough choice in crafting book - how to tell the story of the company and the personalities involved, while in the same time explain the technology - which is quite fascinating and а topic of its own. To achieve this and not end up with a 1000 page text is а hard thing to do.

*) International Technology and Management 4E (ITM) – 70677
Professor NAKAMURA Shuzo

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