Personally Experiencing Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

 “I don’t believe that a hydrogen economy depends on a carbon economy at all.” Larry Burns

My interpretation of Larry Burns’ quote is that he anticipates power from free green energy will soon deliver the means for producing hydrogen for the new H2 economy. (At present, most H2 is produced from natural gas.)

Growing up and then earning a living during, and from, the car-and-carbon economy, the thought of a better economy did not occur to most working ‘in the trenches’. We did not know that in laboratories visionaries such as Larry Burns at General Motors, or Geoffrey Ballard and others were working on ‘something better’. Occasionally, rumors about a ‘miracle engine’ or a ‘wonder fuel’ surfaced, but even at high levels of interest in motor-sport we never experienced other than ‘state of the art’.

After retiring and writing a weekly column ‘Fuel for Thought’ in area newspapers for several years, including a series of articles about fuel-cells, I unexpectedly received an invitation to a ‘fuel-cell workshop’ in June of 2005 at Hydrogenics in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto.

An opportunity I would not miss — usually reserved for the ‘big names’ from Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, or journalists of large national newspapers. — Lucky me!

   Hydrogenics HQ in 2005

After the early morning drive, I found myself in the company of professionals from various disciplines, from as far away as northern Quebec, southern California and from across Canada and the USA. These included power-generation plant managers, University researchers, automotive development engineers, electrical engineers, investment managers, several other occupations, and one privileged newsperson.

Several of Hydrogenics’ specialists gave us an insight into their occupation, takings turns in presenting and explaining the substance of their activities:

“A fuel cell is a device that converts chemical energy from hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy. It is similar to a battery in that it has an anode or negative terminal and a cathode or positive terminal. A battery, however, is only capable of storing power, whereas the fuel cell can generate it, so long as hydrogen, the fuel, is being supplied. As such, the fuel cell system also has similarities to an internal combustion engine, except that it operates very efficiently at low temperatures and with minimal moving parts. In the process of electrochemical conversion to create electricity, the only by-products or emissions of the fuel cell are water and heat.”

After all these years, and after reading the foregoing series, we all know the basics —— this was 2005.

Another of Hydrogenics’ experts continued: ”To produce a large usable amount of electricity to supply homes, offices, industries, etc., multiple fuel cells are combined into a fuel cell stack. The stack is essentially an assembly of fuel cells, designed to produce a sufficient quantity of electricity to power a vehicle. The electricity generated can be increased or decreased by altering the number of cells in the stack.”

Yet another staff member followed with: “Producing electricity for a working application, such as a motor or an appliance, requires much more than just the fuel cell stack. In addition to the stack, a fuel cell system includes many components for such functions as injecting fuel gases, managing a water cooling system, conditioning the output power, and monitoring and controlling all the required system parameters such as temperatures and pressures. Without this supportive operating system, the fuel cell stack cannot produce usable power. The successful integration of an entire fuel cell system is critical to achieving the desired power performance.”

Someone else talked about the history of Hydrogenics: “We combined with Stuart Energy, a stalwart in working with H2, and acquired other small related companies. With more than fifty years experience in working with hydrogen, the recent construction of hydrogen generation equipment, producing various sizes of fuel-cell power units, and building test equipment to evaluate it all, our small firm is facing the ‘hydrogen economy’ with poise.” (That link contains many now completed projects and schematic illustrations.)


In this new millennium, the City of Toronto partnered with Hydrogenics in a ‘Fuel Cell Demonstration Project’. As a part of several planned future make-believe ‘Hydrogen Villages’, connected by real ‘Hydrogen Highways’, a three-bladed, 750-kilowatt wind turbine at the Canadian National Exhibition Park, simply known as the CNE, supplies ‘green’ electricity, which in turn powers the Hydrogenics ‘Electrolyser’ generator, producing hydrogen from Lake Ontario water. The H2 gas is then stored in four large cylinders, adjacent to Toronto’s first hydrogen-gas refueling station. City employees working on the CNE grounds refuel their four John Deere ‘Pro Gator’ work vehicles, forklifts and other future fuel-cell vehicles at this, Toronto’s first true gas station.

The immensely interesting Fuel Cell Workshop included a visit to and the demonstration of this Electrolyzer plant. Those interested in, and experienced in operating the various work vehicles were given the opportunity to drive or operated them.

Behind the refueling station the wind turbine that generates electricity to pump water from Lake Ontario and convert that into hydrogen, which is used to power Public Works vehicles of the City of Toronto.


After returning to Hydrogenics HQ, the staff showed us the work in progress: fuel-cell power modules of various sizes and outputs, hydrogen generators, and the test stands. On one of these was humming a fuel-cell that would complete a seven-thousand-hour test on the next day. This is the equivalent of almost 750,000 km endured by an internal combustion engine in an automobile.


As we discovered in the preceding article series, different types of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are being tested around the world now, some already in production; passenger cars, buses, and delivery vans. At Hydrogenics in 2005, a fortunate few had the chance to drive a Purolator van and one of the new generation of ‘city cars’, small two-seat commuter vehicles. Like the ‘smart’, the GEM is a micro car. But while the ‘smart’ is diesel or gasoline powered, the GEM (Global Electric Motorcar) is an electric car. Both of these companies belong to DaimlerChrysler. The GEM comes in two and four seat versions and as a pickup. Several of these cute ‘gems’ were at Hydrogenics for an ‘organ transplant’; the battery pack replaced by a fuel cell. Just as the smart is a riot to drive, creating traffic jams from people trying to get a glimpse at it (in 2005), the GEM is/was off to a fast start. But, being a ‘city car’ its top speed is limited.

Unfortunately, much of this pioneering work done for GM and Chrysler (the forklift and the GEM) fell by the wayside during the 2008/09 collapse of the financial and auto industry. Larry Burns’ work also came to a halt, but he insists that “Fuel cells create a better automobile that’s 50% more energy-efficient overall and sustainable from energy and safety perspectives,” — Larry Burns

Thanks to Hydrogenics, Ballard, and other Canadian firms, as well as engineers around the world, the time of a fuel-cell powered cell phone, plain, train and automobile, or home is getting close; the Hydrogen Age is dawning.

Changing power … Powering change is one of Hydrogenics’ catchphrases.

That was the state of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History in 2005… But wait, there is more: I was again invited to visit Hydrogenics in May of 2017.

All photographs generously supplied by Hydrogenics.

Next, but likely not next week: Hydrogenics’ contribution to the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History. (In August)

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