Geoffrey Ballard, founder of the B.C.-based fuel-cell firm Ballard Power Systems Inc. and an entrepreneur Time magazine once named as one of its Heroes for the Planet, has died.

A company official confirmed Ballard died in Vancouver Saturday at age 76. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Ballard has been widely called the "father of the fuel cell industry" for his work, including the introduction of the world's first hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered, zero-emission transit bus.

He served as chair of Ballard Power until 1997, and two years later started General Hydrogen, which was bought by Plug Power Inc. last year for $10 million US.

"Geoffrey Ballard's creativity and determination established a foundation on which this company has developed proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel-cell technology," John Sheridan, president and CEO of the Burnaby-based Ballard, said in statement sent by e-mail to the Canadian Press.

"His name will forever be associated with this company's fuel-cell products, which are being deployed as an energy source for applications in a growing number of important global markets."

Vision to create non-polluting source of energy

Ballard was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ont., and studied geological engineering at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

He also had a doctorate in Earth and planetary sciences from Washington University in St. Louis and has been awarded numerous honorary degrees. He received the Order of Canada in 1999 and the 2004 Order of British Columbia.

Early in his career, Ballard worked for Mobil Oil and the U.S. army before reportedly opening a restaurant to fund his research in rechargeable battery technology.

He founded Ballard Research Inc. with two others in 1979, a company that did research and development in high-energy lithium batteries. His vision was to create a new, non-polluting source of energy.

In 1983, the company began developing proton exchange membrane fuel cells, powered by hydrogen and later evolved in the mid-1990s into full-scale prototype systems.

Called skeptics 'pistonheads'

While fuel cells were not new, having been used for decades in the German space program, Ballard's goal was to make them smaller and less expensive.

The company landed a B.C. government contract to build a fuel-powered demonstration bus. The bus was unveiled in June 1993 amid much fanfare at Vancouver's Science World, around the same time Ballard took the company public.

Time magazine highlighted Ballard as one of its Heroes for the Planet, alongside the environmental work of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and others in 1999.

In the Time article, Ballard called skeptics of his vision "pistonheads," and predicted fuel-cell cars will become economical by 2010 and "the internal-combustion engine will go the way of the horse. It will be a curiosity to my grandchildren."

Ballard's prediction did not happen quite as planned. While hydrogen is gaining recognition recently with rising oil prices, its promise has been slow to materialize due to the high costs of getting it to market.

Earlier this year, Ballard Power acknowledged the difficulties by selling its automotive fuel-cell development business to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co. after spending millions developing fuel-cell technology to replace the internal combustion engine.

Today, Ballard Power is focusing on what it sees as other promising businesses in the near term, such as providing fuel cells for forklifts as well as making portable power units and small cogeneration plants to power residential homes.