These fuel cell units above are an example of the technology Byron McCormick helped develop during his 50-year career at the Energy Department. | Photo courtesy of Plug Power

In honor of National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day on October 8, we sit down with Byron McCormick, one of the “founding fathers” of hydrogen and fuel cells, to talk about his experiences during his more than 50-year career. Byron began his career in 1974 at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he first explored the possibility of using fuel cells in vehicles. 

What sparked your interest in clean energy technologies?

I came to Los Alamos National Laboratory from the University of Arizona in 1974, having experienced the worst of the energy crisis. Tucson, Arizona was one of the worst hit places with long gas lines, and “no gas” signs everywhere. It wasn’t unusual to sit in a line for gas for two hours just to get to the front and discover there was no gas left. For those of us who experienced it, finding alternatives or reducing our oil dependencies was not an intellectual endeavor. It was painfully real.

How did the idea for fuel cell vehicles come about?

I joined the Electronics Division at Los Alamos where it was natural to think about electric vehicles, advanced motors, power electronics, and other electronic technologies. At the time, the battery electric vehicles didn’t seem possible. One afternoon, I casually asked the question, “what about fuel cells?” After all, they were a key enabler for reaching the moon. None of us knew much about fuel cells, so we began to call people in the field and the more we learned, the more we were intrigued by the possibility.

What enabled this idea to become a current technology?

The wonderful talent, technical diversity, and resident depth at the national labs, particularly Los Alamos, are able to tackle difficult, multidisciplinary challenges. During my time at Los Alamos, I always felt a bit like a kid in a candy store with all of the talent, curiosity and enthusiasm available to engage on challenging projects. The capability, interest, and mission-driven people find creative ways to seed new ideas and opportunities, with the understanding of how to build on results. The fuel cell car story would not have been possible without them.  The willingness to take risks is key to building a vibrant portfolio of real energy and environment solutions.

Other “founding fathers” whose research significantly impacted the Energy Department’s transportation fuel cell program include Supramaniam “Srini” Srinivasan and Shimshon Gottesfeld, but we owe our gratitude to many others over the years as well. When General Motors relocated their fuel cell division to Los Alamos, these initial lab researchers taught industry scientists how to make optimized electrodes, leading to the cutting edge fuel cell technology we have today. Thanks to these efforts starting 40 years ago, we now have commercial fuel cell electric vehicles available for sale today.