Christopher Brandon is the cofounder and director of EH Group Engineering, a startup building next generation hydrogen fuel cells. In this interview, Brandon discusses limitations to current fuel cell technology, policy hurdles to fuel cell adoption, and why this technology is critical for decarbonizing heavy industry and mobility. 

What was the origin of EH Group?

I had been running a hedge fund for 20 years and I reconnected with my business partner, Mardit Matian, who has been in the fuel cell business for over 20 years. In 2017. I’ve been down the hydrogen rabbit hole ever since. Mardit has been in this kind of business since the early 2000s. Hydrogen was a hot topic back then too and he did his PhD at Imperial College London on PEM fuel cells and actually worked with high-temperature fuel cells for a while. By 2017, he had all these ideas burning in his head and that’s when our paths crossed. So the vision for EH Group was really to try to solve the problem of providing power to large mobile and stationary systems where batteries aren’t sufficient. The challenge was to make fuel cells much less costly and complicated, so that’s what we’ve set out to do.

What do you see as the limitations of current fuel cells and where is the opportunity for innovation?

Fuel cells have been around since the 80s and everyone is following a very similar technology pathway. Everybody in the industry has a very conventional approach to what they think is the right way to enhance things and we’ve come at it from a different perspective. The microstructure of our stacks look very different from everybody else’s stacks. It’s not just that we’ve optimized some flow channels. We have a much more compact and lightweight stack. Making a standard bipolar stack is 40-50% of the cost of the stack. It requires just two pieces of sheet metal laser welded together, you need to do some punching, coat it, and do dispensing. It’s a lot of process. We take a very different approach to how we manage gasses, liquid, thermal energy, et cetera. So our stacks are much smaller. But importantly, we’re able to get system efficiencies because we operate our stacks at lower air pressures. What’s happening inside of fuel cells is you have hydrogen coming in and you have to blow the air in with a compressor, which takes a lot of energy. So for a 100 kW system–enough to power a car–you typically have a 120 kW stack inside it because 20 kW are going to power the compressor and other auxiliary components to get you to your 100 kW net. In our case, we can have a 105 kW stack inside and a much smaller compressor to get you to your 100 kW. That’s a much more efficient use of hydrogen than we’re used to.

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How have you approached changing the way these fuel cell systems are manufactured?

Our cells are designed for manufacturing. At the moment, the state of the art builds these things with big pick-and-place robots. It looks very cool, but it’s actually quite expensive and quite slow. So what we’ve been working on is a straight-to-production process. It’s basically a machine where you input sheets of metal and carbon and it delivers one of our fully assembled stacks. The goal is to make one of 100kW in 15-20 minutes. So not only can we really scale up aggressively, but more importantly we can also drive the cost down with even relatively low volumes. That’s crucial because fundamentally, what you’re trying to do is replace diesel engines. Those are cheap and ubiquitous, and so when the fuel cell market is just developing, you need to get the price point lower. Otherwise everyone’s stuck in pilot project mode forever. This process also allows us to make much larger single systems. The types of applications where fuel cells are best are heavy duty mobility—so marine ferries, long distance trucking, mining trucks, et cetera. What we have here in fuel cell trucks in Switzerland running on a 200 kW system, so you need two stacks, two complete systems. In our case, you could put one stack of 250 kW, so far less duplications, it’s much smaller, cheaper, et cetera.

Do you see these fuel cells replacing batteries in light passenger vehicles as well or is this mostly applicable to heavy-duty mobility applications?

So you barely ever use your car. You use it 4 or 5% of the time. Otherwise it’s just sitting in a parking lot or at home. Conversely, consider an extreme example of a mining truck. A mining truck needs 2 megawatts of power, and they want to use it like 23 hours a day. So letting it sit there and recharge with a battery is not an option. And every extra ton of battery you’re putting on is an extra ton of ore that you can’t be hauling. The reason the fuel cell is best for this application is because the system will be a lot smaller than a battery and you’ll have a much longer range. If you want to use a truck 23 hours a day, you might have to refuel twice per day, but that’s it. This isn’t to say that fuel cells are  a solution for everything, but for those types of applications where time is really money and you’re carrying heavy payloads you need them to go further. So the less battery they’re carrying, the better.

What are the tradeoffs between the low temperature fuel cells that EH is working on versus high temperature fuel cells?

This PEM fuel cell technology, which operates around 70 Celsius is much more compact and much more responsive. Your startup time is like 10 to 30 seconds. There’s also something called high temperature PEM fuel cells, which are slightly more efficient, but have less power density and are overall a less mature technology. But they get higher efficiency because they’re running at a high temperature. The most efficient thermodynamics are what’s called solid oxide fuel cells. The advantage there is very high efficiency and you’re able to use multiple feedstocks so you don’t need just pure hydrogen. You can use natural gas too. The disadvantage is that they are extremely bulky plus it’s going to take 4 to 8  hours to get up to a working temperature. So it’s just used for totally different types of applications.

What has limited fuel cell technology adoption in the past and how do you see that changing in the future?

Hydrogen supply and then the policy framework around ensuring that hydrogen supply. For the past few years, people have been doing pilot projects. Then the EU Green Deal happened followed by the war in Ukraine, which basically saw the EU multiply its ambitions for hydrogen because of energy security and its decarbonisation goals. Then the Inflation Reduction Act just threw things to the stratosphere. So policy is there. Where we see the early adopters for fuel cells is with stationary power. So half to two-thirds of our demand is for big containers—anything from 200 kW to multi-megawatt capacities that are replacing big diesel generators. You still need to overcome the limitations of not having refueling stations everywhere, but you can still call a  gas merchant and they will bring you a rack. So it’s  obviously moving very, very fast. 

Beyond the IRA, what kind of policies would you like to see to accelerate fuel cell adoption?

The thing that’s most important is policy certainty. The fine print can matter a lot and this is kind of what’s happened in Europe. We know the policy direction, but the fine print has been complicated, cumbersome, and so on. And to a certain extent, they’ve started revising it for a somewhat simpler approach following the Inflation Reduction Act.. We need to simplify frameworks because we really, really need this ramp up fast to meet our decarbonization goals. It’s supposed to happen this decade, and I hate to be a pessimist but it is not looking great for our planet. 

Is hydrogen distribution infrastructure a major bottleneck for fuel cell adoption?

No, I think it’s quite clear that this is going to sort of revolve around hubs where you’ve got grid connections and where there is a type of heavy industry user, such as ports. In the States there’s actually a specific policy to create hubs and that will make sense where you have the right types of industrial users or hydrogen capacity to predict the right price of energy. In Europe, I think it’s gonna be more structured around ports like Rotterdam. But clusters are the natural way for this. Transporting hydrogen across big distances is a challenge and I think to accelerate adoption the cluster or hubs approach is the right way.