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The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Industry: Impacts and Opportunities

In this episode, we welcome Emerson Gallagher, CEO of Infinity Fuel Cell Technology – a company based out of Burnaby, BC, to talk about the hydrogen fuel cell industry; the impacts and opportunities as it relates to the transportation sector and communities throughout Canada and indeed the world.

About Emerson: 

Emerson is the CEO of Infinity Fuel Cell Technology, a niche and agile Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cell research and design firm based out of Burnaby, British Columbia. With the understanding that transitioning to carbon neutral technologies is critical to a healthy future, he and his team are busy developing applications to support high up-time and continuous high power. Infinity Fuel Cell Technology is servicing some of the most carbon intensive industries in need of new solutions.


Emerson has over 22 years of experience developing and commercializing new PEM fuel cell technologies for Ballard Power Systems and AVL Fuel Cell Canada.  His technical experience includes fundamental research, cell and stack design, as well as stack and system architecture development.  His management experience includes running both the Stack Engineering and Stack Test Engineering teams for Ballard during a major automotive OEM program, as well as managing the Stack/System Interface & Stack Architecture team at AVL Fuel Cell Canada.  Emerson also has 22 granted patents with more pending.


Leanne Buck:    So Emerson, sustainable transportation encompasses many topics and we often hear about the end product, the final launch of what's taken years to plan and develop. And today we're here stepping back to talk about the research and the science taking place that literally is the driver for what we term sustainable transportation. But we're also going to look ahead - what will it take to move clean technology forward faster? Where does hydrogen fuel cell technology fit into making our planet healthier? We're just going to get right into this. Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your experience in the hydrogen fuel cell industry.

Emerson Gallagher:    I actually am originally mechanical engineer, but way back in the late nineties, I decided that I was really interested in fuel cells and I went to work at Ballard Power Systems. I was there for a little bit over 20 years doing a lot of different technical roles, cell design, material process development, running teams, all that sort of stuff. Then eventually ended up going over to AVL Fuel Cell Canada, which was a new company being started up by AVL, an Austrian powertrain engineering company that was interested in breaking into the fuel cell space. And now more recently I've started my own company, Infinity Fuel Cell Technology, to continue pushing that technology forward, but to address some of the market needs that I felt weren't necessarily being covered by the existing companies that I had already worked with. That also means though, that I lived through the huge technology and enthusiasm bubble around fuel cells in that late nineties and early two thousands where fuel cells were amazing, they were going to solve everyone's problems, everyone was going to be driving fuel cell cars in no time. 


And then reality struck and there was 10, 15 years of disappointment and slogging and dealing with technical issues. But now the technology is really making a comeback because it's now at a point where it's capable of meeting the requirements of the market, it's capable of actually starting to hit some of the cost targets that we need it to hit, and it now actually has the technical underpinnings to actually be successful. And that's cool seeing it go full circle. I could maybe have done with a few less years of grief in between, but that's the way it goes.

Leanne Buck:   So to help us understand, for people who don't know a lot about fuel cell technology, what are fuel cell electric vehicles and what are the benefits of this technology?

Emerson Gallagher:    Sure. At a simpler level, fuel cells are basically an electric chemical device. So batteries, also electric chemical devices that react to hydrogen and air to create electricity. And the idea is that, yeah, you can power a vehicle or you can power any electrical device using them, but realistically what ends up happening is that you end up building hybrid vehicles. So you take your fuel cell and you take a battery, you put them together and you make this battery fuel cell hybrid vehicle. The trick here is that you want to get that combination of how much battery, how much fuel cell lined up to where you want to go with your product and what you think the market actually needs. Part of the reason why the history of fuel cells is the way it is has to do with how it evolved around fuel cell vehicles.

If I go way back, I actually first encountered Ballard and first talked to people at Ballard back in 95 or 96. And at the time, Ballard was very focused on buses and commercial vehicles. The problem is there's not as much money there. And so what ended up happening is the industry pivoted and it focused a lot on passenger cars. And I will say right now passenger cars are the worst possible application because consumers are very initial cost sensitive, they are very demanding in terms of reliability and durability and flexibility. They don't like having smaller numbers of fueling stations. It's just the hardest target market. The fuel cell industry went down that path for many years because that's where the money came from, but now it's pivoted back towards the commercial vehicles. So the idea is that you have your fuel cell and it's working together with that battery to provide power for your electric vehicle.

If you have a battery electric car or battery electric bus or truck, you put in a big honking battery that hopefully has enough charge in it to run the vehicle for however many hours or days you need it to run. With a fuel cell system, you shrink that battery down and you put in your fuel cell and then the fuel cell can help maintain the state of charge of the battery. It can keep the battery in its happy place so that you're not draining it all the way down, you're not charging it all the way up, and you have the ability to refuel with hydrogen as you go so that you don't have long charging delays. The idea here is that those aspects of the technology point you to where it's going to be successful. Part of the reason why I don't like fuel cells for passenger vehicles is because y'all don't drive enough. If you're only driving an hour or two or whatever a day, a battery vehicle works fine.

Leanne Buck:       I see.

Emerson Gallagher:    But if you want to have a commercial vehicle that's going to be driving for eight hours a day or maybe two shifts 16 hours a day, that's gets pretty hard with a battery.

Leanne Buck:      With a battery, yeah, powered vehicle-.

Emerson Gallagher:     Yes.

Leanne Buck:     My next question is where do the opportunities lie in terms of implementing the fuel cell technology? So you're talking the transportation sector areas and where trucks will be driving for periods of time, so long haul trips. What are some other commercial applications that you can think of maybe in even a city environment?

Emerson Gallagher:   Totally. Well, actually, at the risk of trotting over your future questions, again, some of the biggest deployments right now are actually in China and they're small urban delivery vehicles because here you have vehicles that are driving around for five to eight hours a day throughout the city. Yes, you could maybe do that with batteries, but you're going to be swinging that battery over a bigger state of charge window, which isn't good for its lifetime. And at the same time, you can refuel these with hydrogen at any point. In an urban environment all those Amazon delivery trucks, for instance, they all start their day at a central depot and they all return to that central depot at the end of the day. That makes refueling a lot easier.

Leanne Buck:      And I was going to ask you Emerson about the refueling because I was just having a conversation yesterday with a transportation planner. We were talking about electric fuel stations, and what municipalities are doing to plan for and integrate electrical charging stations or electric charging stations within communities. This had me thinking about hydrogen charging. How will that change the fabric of development actually, because not only is this technology taking place, at the same time we've got other competing technologies happening, municipalities designing their communities to accommodate for say electric vehicles and developers are also integrating charging stations in Parkades and such. So where do hydrogen fuel cell stations fit into this equation?

Emerson Gallagher:    So my guess is that they're going to show up with fleet vehicles first, like I just said with the Amazon thing, if you got an Amazon fleet that you are deploying from a certain area, you can have a hydrogen refueling station right there. If you look at companies that have had actually good success deploying large numbers of fuel cell vehicles, Plug Power out of the US is a great example. So what they do is they make materials handling equipment or fuel cells and power systems for that.

So these are the forklifts and other things like that that drive around in warehouses. It's a large number of these electric vehicles in a confined space so that you can set up a small localized refueling network. Buses, commercial vehicles that return to a depot, delivery trucks and things like that, they all have that advantage where you can refuel a large number of vehicles from a smaller number of physical locations. So, that's your easiest way to get a toehold into the market. And that's why it's hard to do it for people's daily drivers, because then you expect to find them on every corner and that takes a while.

Leanne Buck:     So for existing sites, is it possible, do they take up a lot of space and there's just, maybe it's a silly question, I'm not sure, but do you feeling stations take a lot of space and B, what's going to be the cost and who pays for that?

Emerson Gallagher:    Yeah, okay. Well, actually there's actually a local company, HTEC, that does that. And they actually have plunked down some hydrogen refueling stations in a couple places around the GVRD. So anyone who's going towards the airport from Vancouver, if you're headed down Granville, right around 70th, there's a shell station that has a hydrogen dispensing refueling station in it. You can go take a look at it. It looks just like a regular gas pump, and a little bit off to the side there's a great big hydrogen tank that's hidden away a little bit behind some protective stuff. You don't want people clonking into it with their cars. It's not a zero footprint sort of a thing, but it can be done in a relatively small space. You can also go and find pictures of hydrogen refueling stations in California. There's several of them. They look shockingly like regular gas stations until you get closer.

So we are starting to see some of the companies like Shell or other gas station companies starting to take a bit of an interest in this because they too want to have a continuing business into the future. And they too have made their money by moving and distributing energy in the form of hydrocarbons around. So they have infrastructure. Yeah, slightly different, compressed gas or maybe a cryogenic liquid, but it's close to their bag. So they're well positioned to be able to actually implement it when the time is right.

Leanne Buck:     I was going to say, and the infrastructure is in place there.

Emerson Gallagher:    Some of it, some of it, not all. Just there's lots of to go, but it's not as rock and sciencey as some people would suggest.

Leanne Buck:      So when we're talking about implementation, whether it be into the commercial space in cities, which would be really cool to see, it would be vehicles that are on the street for the long periods of time. What do you think will be the change agent to push this clean energy and technology forward? Is it going to be our health? Is it going to be cost, climate, political will? What's going to get this moving faster?

Emerson Gallagher:    I think there's a couple of different directions that, that push is going to come from. One is going to be legislative. Obviously there are governments that want to take more aggressive attack towards reducing carbon pollution and they're going to run legislation through that's going to incentivize or disincentivize technologies in order to hasten that transition. But at the same time, there's also good financial reasons. I'm sure you've probably noticed gas is not really getting cheaper at the moment. And while you can argue that the current situation is a bit of an anomaly, longer term trends are clear, gas that you drill out of the ground doesn't get cheaper. But if you look at hydrogen, hydrogen has been relatively expensive, but it's getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. And as people start to bring online more solar, more wind power, more renewables, you do have times and places where you have excess generating capacity.

And we're now starting to see people plunking in electrolysis plants in various different parts of the world to take that surplus electricity and turn it into hydrogen. That has the possibility to really dramatically change the landscape because it has the ability to drive the cost of hydrogen on a per jewel basis or per energy basis down to be competitive or cheaper than fuels like diesel. And when that happens, whoa, that can really catalyze some massive changes. If you think about it, fuel costs are everything to these big commercial shipping companies, for instance, I read an article a little while ago talking about a family that owned a long haul truck and they were talking about where the money goes from their operation.

And by far and away the biggest cost, and it was something like more than 50% of their revenue went into fuel costs. Well, if I can save you 2% of your fuel cost, that's not nothing. If I can save you five or 10% of your fuel costs, yeah, you're going to definitely take whatever technology I'm selling because that has such a huge financial impact. We're not there yet, but you can definitely see which direction the numbers are trending. I have every reason to believe that not too far in the future, you'll see hydrogen being cost competitive or cheaper than those other fuels. And that to me, that's the huge catalyst.

Leanne Buck:    I'm thinking about that one too. And when it comes to cost, of course the catalyst, I don't disagree, is cost in so many ways is going to make this change. What about in California, for instance, where gas powered vehicles are phasing out? It's like, nope, I can't remember the year it was, we're phasing it out. So we need options. And like you're saying, electric powered vehicles, fully electric powered by battery may not cut it for a long haul.

Emerson Gallagher:   Well, that's the thing. Yeah. Battery vehicles make really great sense for your average person doing average person things, but they don't necessarily make as good sense for a lot of those other industries. So people will point at, my personal favorite is the Tesla semi truck. You'll be like, oh, but you can do with batteries, yeah, you can, but all those thousands of pounds of batteries that you have to carry to do that, that comes out of the load that you're allowed to haul. So sure you can do it, but is it the right choice? Is it the most optimum choice? If I took that battery pack and I chains audit down to a fifth of its size and then I put it in a fuel cell system, could I get to the same range and the same economics while still maintaining the load that I can carry versus a diesel truck? Yeah, I think I could.

So I think what you'll see is a huge variety of solutions. There is no one solution. And that's why many of us in the industry hate the whole batteries versus fuel cell things. It's not versus. They work better together for a reason. And as soon as you start looking at how they work, you can see it, it's relatively clear and straightforward. Those two technologies are complimentary. They don't fight. But at the same time, there are so many different niches and so many different applications that need motive power that there's going to be a bunch of different solution-.

Leanne Buck:        That's a good thing. I think that's a good thing. And you made up a-.

Emerson Gallagher:  Absolutely.

Leanne Buck:     ... really made a good point, Emerson, that this isn't a competition. I think where we're trying to get to in clean energy for the same reason, is to have a healthier planet, to cut carbon emissions, to do things right. So I love when I hear that it's not competition that we're trying to achieve the same goal and it's not one necessarily better than the other.

Emerson Gallagher:     Yep.

Leanne Buck:      And going back, you mentioned China, and so do you think China is the country that will be implementing fuel cell technology on a large scale first?

Emerson Gallagher:   One of the key barriers for this new technology has been that everything is made in relatively small quantities and therefore you pay very special pricing for everything that you buy because each one is hand assembled, lubricated with the tears of engineers that have designed and built it. And because of that, the prices are all artificially inflated. What you need is somebody, anybody to move a bunch of volume. And once you do that, those costs come down and that lowers the barriers for everyone. So it doesn't really matter who does it, it just matters that somebody does it. China has taken the early lead here. They have viewed this technology as being a key emerging technology that they want to embrace. They do obviously have some challenges internally with using relatively dirty fuels, and they recognize that, that's not a great plan and they need to change that.

So they've been pushing really hard on this, and that helps a lot because now all of a sudden there's volume, suppliers are actually interested in doing things. It brings those costs down. I think that's very critical to the success of the industry. Europe also has pushed on this pretty hard as well, especially countries like Germany. North America tends to be a little bit lagging behind, I'm not going to lie there.

Leanne Buck:     No.

Emerson Gallagher:    We've been at the forefront of developing some of the technologies, but really not stellar in terms of implementing those technologies. So I'd like to see North America catch up, but obviously from a population density standpoint, sure it's a little harder from a setting up infrastructure standpoint, but we definitely have a role to play and we should get on it.

Leanne Buck:      So federal government pushed there, I assume.

Emerson Gallagher:    That would always be a good idea. Now, let's be honest, Canada's not a huge market. Canada is not going to drive building its own industry and stuff like that because it's just not large enough to do so. You really need Canada and the US to work together on this, in my view.

Leanne Buck:    That's a really interesting point. So nothing is ever quite as easy as it seems to get things moving forward. And, of course, when you have international connections at play, there's an added challenge there too. So it's good to be realistic about these things. With that realism thought, if you were to see an Amazon in, I don't know, Vancouver or in the lower mainland here, when do you think realistically you could see that shift to hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles take place?

Emerson Gallagher:    Yeah, it's a difficult question because I feel that it does rely so much on other places right now because Canada and the US aren't so much in the driver's seat. It's like when's everyone else going to commercialize it to bring costs down that we can have it? That's an awkward question. I think what you'll see is you'll start to see it penetrate certain niche areas where you do have fleet vehicles, like buses and delivery vans and things like that. You'll see that earlier and you'll see it in major urban centres because that gets you lots of activity and lots of vehicles in a confined space so that you can deploy your fuel cell vehicles. You don't have to worry about having a billion refueling stations all over the place and you have enough population density to justify it. Realistically, that's probably for noticeable penetration like, oh, I drove to the store and I saw two or three hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the way. You're probably still got close to 10 years would be my guess in this private world.

Leanne Buck:    Well, you know what? That's not as far as I thought. 10 years goes by quite quickly actually. And-.

Emerson Gallagher:    Well, that's because I prefaced it with such a downer preamble that by the time I actually threw the number at you, you were like, oh God, this could be like 50 years.

Leanne Buck:    Well, I was going to say 30, I was going to come in 30, is everything 30 years out? I think maybe in 1990 we were, I think it felt like that, but 10 years actually seems more midterm. It doesn't seem that long term.

Emerson Gallagher:    And I think that's partly because when fuel cells made a run at it the first time around in the late nineties, early two thousands, yes, you had the fuel cell technology which was in its infancy, and let's be realistic at the time was terrible. But that had to be mated with a hybrid battery technology that was also pretty hokey, it was, I think nickel cadmium, maybe nickel metal hydride at the time, and it had to be mated to an electric power train, which also was very unsophisticated. Now I can go and I can buy a battery electric vehicle with a very good battery in it. So those other technologies which are complimentary and are required to make the fuel cell vehicle work don't stink anymore. They're good. So it's like you now don't have to bring everything together and start from scratch. Now a lot of those core building blocks are already there. So I can buy an electric drive for a delivery truck now. Couldn't really do that 10, 15 years ago.

Leanne Buck:      Well, that's definitely encouraging to hear. Just to finish up our conversation here, I'm curious to know what motivates you most about your work? What do you hope to achieve in the next 10 years?

Emerson Gallagher:     Yeah, for me, I like new technology. I could have gone into the oil and gas industry and probably made more money and had more days off, but I get jazzed about figuring out new physics and figuring out how to deal with problems and how to work around stuff and how to create something new. I spent several years at the start of my career helping, working with another company to develop some really unique material and process technologies. That's cool. There's not a lot of industries where you can do that. So to me, that's what keeps me interested in the fuel cell industry is that it's evolving. There's new stuff coming out. There's the constant arms race that you have against other huge players like Toyota and Hyundai, for instance, that you have to look at where the industry's going and place your bets and then develop the technology that you think is going be needed to get you to that desired end state. And that's fun.

Leanne Buck:     Yeah, that does sound like fun. You're working in an industry that you can be really proud of at the end of the day too, and making change and positive change. Thanks so much, Emerson. I've learned so much for this conversation here today. Please keep charging ahead with the great work you're doing. It's been my pleasure speaking with you.

Emerson Gallagher:     Well, thank you for having me on.

Leanne Buck:      Thank you for listening to the UPLIFT Community Podcast. Have an amazing day and an uplifting week ahead.

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