Interview: Amer Gaffar from Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre

Written by Chris Kwacz

Today an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with our special guest Amer Gaffar – Director of the Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre (MFCIC) at Manchester Metropolitan University and a sustainability professional with more than 20 years’ experience in the clean technology sector. Amer is a passionate advocate for fuel cell and hydrogen technology and has successfully built consensus and momentum in Manchester and the North West towards positive environmental practice and cleaner energy over the last decade. In 2013 Amer founded the Greater Manchester Hydrogen Partnership which led to the development of the MFCIC and the HySchools educational programme. He is leading the pathways work with Greater Manchester Combined Authority to formally implement a Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Strategy for the region. Amer also worked with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on developing ‘Green Standards’ for Hydrogen production and more recently was invited to be part of a group led by BEIS on Industrial Decarbonisation and the market creation required for this to become a reality.

Why Hydrogen? How the interest in this green energy source appeared in Your life? How’s that happened, that You decided to spend Your life as an advocate for this technology?

Amer: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells are clearly not new technology but you will see globally that many economies are looking to recover from the pandemic by tackling the  build back ethos in a “greener” way as part of the economic recovery from the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Hydrogen is a solution to solve the climate crisis with many other net zero CO2 emission technologies.

It’s not just the passenger vehicle industry in transport terms it is being touted as a means of propelling buses and lorries, and even ships and aircraft. There are now viable projects in the UK such as HyNet by organisations like Cadent whereby they will replace natural gas as a source of heat and for it being used to store the surplus output of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

I have a career spanning over 20 years in the low carbon sector which led to me Hydrogen around 8 years ago when I started at Manchester Metropolitan University. It was whilst looking for innovative low carbon solutions for our award winning estate we came across hydrogen and fuel cell technology and our journey started. What we needed to highlight was who else was interested, our regional authority Greater Manchester Combined Authority worked with us to develop a public private partnership focused on developing hydrogen in our region and the work from that partnership highlighted that we need to increase the science asset base in the region with an innovation centre to work with multiple partners to develop projects.

 As a University we already had great academic strengths in surface engineering, electrochemistry and environmental science and we began there.

Hydrogen and fuel cells within the next decade will make a lot of economic sense that will help achieve the net zero ambition for many nations and that’s the most important point, why are we doing this ? We’re working to develop a sector that has one of the largest opportunities to decarbonise the world at scale which also helps to lead us into a new greener industrial revolution. Its exciting and develops opportunities for businesses, researchers, policy makers and critically the next generation.

MFCIC within last few years grew as one of the strongest H2 points on UK’s Hydrogen map. What the MFCIC is focusing on, what is Your Fuel Cell Strategy for the whole region, how the facility looks like and what are Your’s most important long term projects and goals to achieve?

Amer: We’ve become strong due to the multi- disciplinary support we receive from our amazing scientists to those in our award winning business school through to a visionary leadership team who have all helped develop the way the centre is developing. I would like to think we are quite a unique centre in the UK as we are support many sectors of the hydrogen economy but we are part of a much larger community of researchers in the UK and for that matter globally who have been working on hydrogen and fuel cells for many years. Our centre was constructed to support research and businesses we have worked with over 80 SME’s all with fantastic ideas to develop products with, we are supporting and working with NetZero NW which is a group of industrial organisations looking to build investable projects to develop a route to net zero. Then there’s our policy work with our regional authority who we have a long history of working with and with who we launched the Greater Manchester Hydrogen Partnership with which is what paved our way to our centre.

At the Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre, our research focuses on hydrogen technology because we believe hydrogen power represents a viable pathway to decarbonisation at a sufficiently feasible scale of the energy, industry and transportation sectors.   We will continue to work to one vision and that’s how do collaborate with and support as many sectors as we can that are trying to solve the global climate crisis. With that vision our projects will develop as they have and are doing, we’re working with some really exciting organsations that are transitioning way from Fossil Fuel products to cleaner technologies and we’re doing our best to support them by working to develop a market for them with other industrial partners and policy makers.  Many of us in the centre work with policy makers locally, nationally and internationally on how we develop the conditions for our collective ambition of seeing a hydrogen economy mature.

HySchools as an educational program, delivers the hydrogen education for the teachers and students, equipping them with the future skills required by this important growing sector. How the overall idea of HySchools was born? What were the origins of this great initiative?

Amer: HySchools is one of the first targeted programmes of hydrogen education for young people between the ages of 13-18. Alongside the development of our centre I wanted to create a dedicated programme of education which began at school level. We had the idea but needed help to develop it further by working with some amazing colleagues at the University from across our faculties of Science and Engineering, Business and Education,  we set out to look what was being delivered for Hydrogen education across our national curriculum and there wasn’t that much.

Our view was that this is market with the opportunity for growth at a exponential rate in the future so why aren’t we developing the resources to support schools now. The HySchools project was funded by the British Council through the Erasmus + programme and we and by we I mean our partners in France, Italy, Belgium and Romania all came together and developed the programme which has resulted in some amazing resources for both teachers and students.

 For us personally I believe HySchools was a brilliant success and it was the appointment of an Ex School teacher Laura who really made the project come to life. Laura had already felt the desire in her career to want to change the curriculum and we needed someone with that vision. Luckily we also had a brilliant co-ordinator Mathilde who kept the project on track and ensured all partners completed their work packages in time. 

All of our partners felt that the legacy of the project would be in how much they were actually used and although thousands of teachers and students already have and continue to use them.

Preparing a huge amount of sophisticated Hydrogen knowledge in a format of easy to understand for non technical teenager, a standard student, was a great challenge? How long it took to finish the whole course? How the work on the project looked like?

Amer: The project took just under 3 years to complete and were not finished, many of our partners are looking to continue the legacy of the HySchools project with new ideas and innovation to share the message. Skills to net zero is where we are focusing our strengths as we have many suggestions how we can work with many of our industrial partners and other Universities and Colleges to develop the skills involved into moving into a new greener industrial revolution.  We are working with and supporting the fantastic work of the skills teams in Manchester and Greater Manchester and leading an education and skills piece of work NetZero NW which is a group of industrial businesses whereby between industry, Universities and the FE sector we will all drive to close the gap to zero carbon skills and support clean growth.

A key factor in developing the resources was listening to the students they are best placed to show you how they would like to le

arn and as hySchools was developed to support the curriculum and not change it YET we feel we have got there.

There are already a several language versions of HySchools. We are just starting the work to prepare a HySchools Poland, polish translated edition of this amazing educational program. How the future of HySchools looks like? What are Your plans and ideas for this program? To spread it more internationally by releasing more regional versions or maybe to build another part of the course?

Amer: I personally feel great pride in knowing that the resources we developed are being translated for use within Polish schools and colleges with the support Meet Hydrogen are providing. We have had requests from all over the world for people requesting to use them and the answer is clear, YES please do. We will only achieve an economy in this sector if we all work together.  Education and Skills in this and every other sector are so important that until they are shared they are not achieving the greatest aspiration we can all have of living in a net zero world.

Our plans and that of our partners is simple and the same,  keep sharing and supporting as many regions across the globe with the resources.  The new translation into Polish is fantastic as I visited Poznan in support of a meet hydrogen inititiative last year and the desire and excitement to develop a hydrogen economy there is amazing.

I very much look forward to sharing our approach and collective resource for many years to come.  Next steps if we are now able to place the importance of hydrogen education much more into the national curriculums of countries.

Hydrogen Economy is just expanding everywhere within last months. As that’s the end of the year its a great time to try to ask for Your personal vision and predictions about the nearest future of H2 market. What we can expect in 2021? What major turn overs and milestones could be achieved? And what are Your personal plans and wishes for upcoming 2021 year in the Hydrogen Solutions segment?

Amer: I think the predictions can be seen from many of the global economic visions on the topic of Hydrogen. The UK will launch a hydrogen strategy in 2021, this is part of the governments 10 point plan in leading us into a new green industrial revolution. I would really say that the campaign by many industrial and academic partners such UK Hydrogen Strategy now should be applauded in the way they have provided evidence to government that the UK can benefit from the role of hydrogen in decarbonisation and help towards our transition to net zero but also we can make a very successful economy around this. Germany released their strategy earlier this year and many more are following suits. Launch of national hydrogen strategy really shows the ambition any country has around this topic as they have a financial mechnanism attached to them whether it be for research, infrastructure or skills development.

My personal view is that exciting times lay ahead for us all as we will see many countries globally moving towards their net zero ambitions which brings about one of the greatest challenges of our time but also one of the greatest opportunities.  We will start to see fuel cells and hydrogen deployed at scale across energy, transport, storage and many other power solutions. We will move away from fossil fuels and utilise a mixture of technologies to get us to net zero. This will be complex, expensive and technical but the reality is there for us to see.  Some of our brilliant academics came up with a few suggestions that I have listed below, these form part of a wider list of recommendations to government both locally and nationally about what we should do in 2021 and beyond.  We will continue our role in ensuring we work with everyone who can help achieve a hydrogen reality as part a net zero ambition for the world.

Our recommendations were:

• To review the capacity of the UK’s electrical grid to support the installation of electrolysers for the production of clean and green hydrogen for the transportation sector

• To install hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure in strategically identified locations for fleets of local travel vehicles including emergency services vehicles, public buses, refuge collection trucks, local delivery HGVs and forklift trucks in warehouses

• Develop a hydrogen policy that focuses on the air quality and rapid re-fuelling for HGVs and buses

• Introduce incentives for investment in infrastructure to encourage the use of dual-fuelled hydrogen and internal combustion engine-powered vehicles for long distance vehicles

• Provide support for investors in hydrogen-powered trains where electrification is not possible within revised rail franchising agreements

• Support industrial investments in either bulk ‘blue’ hydrogen production facilities at multiple locations where carbon capture storage and utilisation is feasible, or ‘green’ hydrogen

• Identify and address the skills gap and challenges facing green technology and industry in the UK at all education levels to facilitate sustained growth of hydrogen economy and aid economic recovery from COVID-19

• Establish funded government programmes that support joint industrial-academic partnerships focused on delivering clean hydrogen

Thank You for an amazing interview and wish You all best in 2021!

The Interview was held in december 2020

All questions by Chris Kwacz/ Meet Hydrogen

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