Hydrogen is a long-term story… and that’s exactly why I like QuestAir Tech

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Ballard Power Systems (NASDAQ:BLDP or TSE:BLD) was arguably the first high-profile alternative energy story to hit North American markets since the oil shock of the 1970s, at a time when investors knew much less about the promises and pitfalls of fuel cells and the so-called “hydrogen economy��? than they do today. It was also an era of general euphoria about anything tech and Ballard got caught into it all. But today I will not focus on Ballard – I’m only giving this example to highlight the fact that the idea of hydrogen powering our whole economy cleanly and renewably has been with us for some time now. Ballard’s rapid rise, especially on the Toronto Exchange, followed by its equally rapid fall and its complete lack of a recovery since, is a sobering reminder that a full-scale hydrogen-powered economy is still years away, at best. The Hydrogen Economy Will Happen… Slowly Last week, someone sent me an article titled The Truth About Hydrogen which was published in the November issue of Popular Mechanics, but I sat on the article for a while. I shouldn’t have. It’s a nice and concise, no-nonsense piece about what hydrogen can and can’t do (yet) for our energy-hungry economy. It confirms what most experts think – that while there will be (and has already been) good progress made on overcoming the wealth of barriers, technical and otherwise, that stand in the way of widespread adoption of hydrogen as a primary fuel source for a number of applications, we still have a long way to go before Jeremy Rifkin’s hydrogen economy vision comes to be. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interest in hydrogen from the tech community, policy-makers, investors, and, increasingly, the public at large, and hydrogen undoubtedly holds great promises in the long run. Seek out the bridge technologies My view, and that of many of our readers, is that the economy will eventually shift into clean mode, driven in part by a push for greater efficiency, tightening regulations, and changing customer demand. That won’t, however, happen overnight, especially with the much touted “hydrogen revolution”. That’s why I’m a big believer in transition, or bridge, technologies. Companies that position themselves to make money along the whole spectrum of phases that will take us from where we are today to a cleaner economy will be the big winners, and so will their shareholders. There are a number of hydrogen and fuel-cell players out there that, while undeniably sitting on promising ideas, really have no way to generate positive cash flow until their core technology is fully commercialized. That is, in principle, how most firms start out, but the caveat here is that some companies are at best a few years away from generating sustainable and healthy profits (Ballard, anyone?). This is exactly why I like QuestAir Technologies (TSE:QAR or LSE:QAR). QuestAir’s main technology is used to purify gases, mostly hydrogen, utilizing a process known as pressure swing adsorption (PSA). What I like about QuestAir is that the company’s technology has some very real applications in a range of existing industrial processes, chief among them oil refining. But what is also interesting is that it is positioning itself for the eventual setting up “hydrogen highways”, or routes along which gas stations would offer hydrogen fuelling facilities. The company is also in a partnership with a leading fuel cell developer and recently got exposure to the US coal-to-liquids market through the sale of one of its units to a leading player in that space. QuestAir finished 102nd on Deloitte’s 2006 Technology Fast 500, which ranks the fastest-growing North American tech companies based on percentage revenue growth over a five-year period. The company’s revenue growth over that period of time was around 2,085%. Now the usual caveats apply here: (a) it’s an emerging company that is heavily reliant on one large strategic partner for sales growth, (b) it’s got negative EBITDA that exceed revenues, and (c) I only gave you a very brief snapshot of the firm, so you should definitely do your homework if I’ve poked your interest. DISCLOSURE: The author is long Questair Tech.



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