Hydrogen professionals take stock of Columbia

Tours give glimpse of outreach, potential

jwilkinson@thestate.com April 1, 2009 

When Terry Kimmel of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association dropped into a Vista art gallery, he got a shock. Two ladies asked him why he was in Columbia. For the conference, he said.

“Oh, the hydrogen thing,” they said. “We heard you have a storage problem.”

Kimmel was floored.

“For laymen to have that level of knowledge of our technology was amazing,” he said during a bus tour of Innovista and Fort Jackson to visit fuel cell demonstration projects. “What I have seen from an outreach perspective here has been terrific.”

Kimmel was one of more than 700 attendees at the National Hydrogen Association conference and expo being held in Columbia through Friday.

He was also among the 20 or so hydrogen professionals — a third of whom hailed from outside the United States — on an early tour of the city.

Kimmel is vice president and chief lobbyist for the Canadian organization. He said he had heard of the efforts in Columbia and South Carolina and came to the conference to see for himself.

“I wanted to learn what was happening in the United States, your state and your city so we can work together to move this forward,” he said.

His observation: “You’ve got to get some companies in here.”

That is the underlying point of Columbia hosting the conference, Mayor Bob Coble said: to attract fuel cell businesses to Columbia.

“We want their business,” he said. “We want them to locate here, to bring their companies here. We’re putting on the hard sell to create jobs in Columbia.”

Jorg Weigl flew 28 hours from Malaysia to Columbia to attend the conference. The German researcher and doctoral student sported a huge blonde afro, a jacket touting a ‘green’ conference in South Africa and a backpack with solar panels.

He has developed a hydrogen-powered motorcycle, called the h2motive. It can be yours for $100,000.

“It’s a very nice small city,” he said while on a tour of Columbia.

More mainstream was Blair Heffelfinger of Vancouver. He is North American manager for Canadian firm FuelCon Systems. The company tests fuel cells and employs about 35 people.

Job No. 1 for Heffelfinger was to get away from the convention center and see a little bit of the town. But he also was getting a feel for the potential market in Columbia.

“It’s good to get the caliber of the research and find out about the support of the government,” he said.

Heffelfinger said that Columbia is about 10 years behind Vancouver — Canada’s main fuel cell hub. But he urged local leaders to stay the course.

“The coordination you have here will expedite your development,” he said. “Especially pairing incubator space with research space. That’s important. It’s expensive. But the technology is not going away.”

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