Dr Henri Winand

Dr Henri Winand

Intelligent Energy is a leading clean power systems company specialising in the application of fuel cell technologies in a number of industrial sectors, including automotive. Dave Leggett caught up with CEO and Executive Director Dr Henri Winand.

This interview was first published in the Autumn edition of Lotus Engineering's proActive e-magazine

Dave Leggett: Can you summarise the nature of your company’s operations?

Henri Winand: We describe ourselves as a clean power systems company. We are focused on engine technology, specifically fuel cell technology, that enables our customers in different market segments to have a more efficient and cost-effective way to bring the next generation of engines to the market. Fuel cell technology is very versatile, so the application of our fuel cell engine goes from consumer electronics – such as small portable devices – to combined heat and power to applications on two and four wheels. It is very versatile.

The unique selling point of our technology builds on this versatility to yield more efficient manufacturing, that is highly recyclable and cost-effective – if done well. We’re dealing in electricity with fuel cells so you can motorise it and it’s very versatile as a result.

DL: So the same principles are involved, with some common elements, whatever the application?

HW: Yes, that’s right, so the fuel cell engine that is in the taxi we have developed also shares core building blocks with what’s in the combined heat and power systems we have developed, and the aircraft systems. And the consumer electronics technology we have  developed, scaled up, that’s what we use in the scooter.

DL: Where are the main commercial applications for fuel cell technology right now?

HW: Okay, our business model is that our customers scale-up their manufacturing operations themselves to take the technology to market – so some are in the public domain, some not. The earliest applications are back-up power – grid support in places where economic growth is very high and there is a requirement for more distributive power for electricity.

Secondly, for consumer devices where people have demand for energy on the move but do not necessarily have the opportunity to recharge as much as they would like. And also on systems on wheels like scooters where you don’t need a lot of hydrogen fuel and you are largely utilising existing infrastructure – gas deployment essentially.

DL: You are clearly involved in a variety of different types of application, but are there any that seem more suitable than others to the technology in an innate way – perhaps due to size of device, energy density or something like that?

HW: Like any engine technology, you always need to do your analysis on a well-to-wheel basis looking at the whole value chain to see what is the most appropriate technology. Our technology is called the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) and it’s particularly versatile due to high power densities, modular construction and low temperature of operation – below 100 degrees Celsius. It has very specific advantages – it’s a high efficiency system that it is particularly good where you are need to cycle it a lot. So if you think about the car it’s good for that because you can switch it on and off very quickly. There are quick transient responses. And you don’t have all the materials issues you have with high temperature operations of say a few hundred degrees.

And it’s particularly good where the consumer is going to be close to it, you could put your hand on it and not burn yourself.

Another thing is that space can be an issue and our proprietary technology has been designed to be compact.

So, in the case of motor vehicles, it can retro-fit into existing chassis, as we have shown with case studies – which also deliver a range and rapid refuelling that consumers will recognise.  And we are talking slight modifications without having to go into the body-in-white and change things which is, of course, very expensive.

DL: So what are the main advantages of your technology from an automotive application point of view?

HW: Very simply, it is very compact on a weight and volume basis, so it can fit into places where competing fuel cell vehicle systems would not fit. And it has been designed from the outset for mass markets. It takes about twenty years to make a good engine, from the time you think you’re going to go to market to the time it does. The four founders who are still with the business had the idea of how to make a cheap fuel cell design in 1988. So if you roll the clock forward 22
years, that’s why we are growing quite rapidly now, with commercial activity rather than R&D.

It is mass manufacturable and we are talking about processes that manufacturers understand and recognise. It is compact and highly efficient. If you think of an internal combustion engine, you have to have a piston cylinder which is your chemical reactor, so to speak, and around it you need timing belts, pumps, alternators, heaters and so forth.

The fuel cell engine is, in a sense, no different – you can think of the fuel cell stack as the chemical reaction – the piston in the cylinder. The parts around that, the water pumps and things are important for reliability.

Our system has 20%-40% fewer bits than any competing system, which means far higher reliability and more compact again.

DL: Is the technology very expensive?

HW: Scale and volume are obviously important to answering that. Our technology is designed so that when you make it at volume it is no more expensive than standard technology. How do we grow the motive market from a standing start? Our focus is on back-to-base fleet vehicles where you can grow on total cost of ownership as opposed to the standard retail model for ordinary customers.

With the total cost of ownership approach we can focus on cities where the drivers have a requirement for range and quick refuelling time, which conventional electric battery vehicles can’t deliver, and where vehicles with zero-emissions in use are also sought.

DL: Taxis might be a good example?

HW: Yes, taxis and other types of urban delivery vehicle or indeed any type of logistics business that comes with critical targets on emissions. The upside is that they can have a vehicle they recognise as being a fully functional vehicle with very short refuelling time and a full operating range.

DL: And refuelling is in a closed loop?

HW: Yes, back-to-base refuelling. For vehicles operating on two-wheels with 300g of hydrogen you can do more than 200 miles. And the infrastructure is largely the existing infrastructure of gas, that gas companies already do. Cars, however, need more fuel [than scooters] and that usually calls for a larger refuelling station – and of course if you went for consumer markets immediately, you would have a very large infrastructure deployment on your hands.

DL: Infrastructure is a big issue then?

HW: It is a much bigger issue if you go straight for the consumer with cars. If you start with scooters and target fleets with larger vehicles it can be gradually rolled out. If a fleet vehicle does 200 or more miles a day and is typically never more than 50 miles from a refuelling pump back at base, then the infrastructure is perhaps one station that serves a whole fleet.

And it is important to remember that all fuels come with an infrastructure cost.

DL: And you think we’re just looking at fuel cell powered scooters rather than cars for consumers for the foreseeable future?

HW: Yes, for the early days, but what is very interesting is that the dynamics of the market are changing quite a bit, since Germany made its announcement in September 2009 for increased hydrogen transport by 2015. Interest in fuel cell powertrains for vehicles is ramping up quite rapidly because of that. It’s a significant move.

If you just concentrate on small vehicles in cities not driving many miles that fails to address the national picture of vehicle usage that includes larger vehicles driving long distances.

So, to step up, you really need to have something that consumers will recognise in terms of operating performance and range, refuelling time. And that requires careful thinking in terms of how you roll out the infrastructure and how you manage that. But it’s early days.

DL: What sort of pace of growth do you see ahead for fuel cell powered vehicles? What kind of timescale are we looking at?

HW: Let’s look at what the German government said last September [2009]. They want hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for consumers to be launched by 2015. That seems to be a timescale that the OEMs and infrastructure players have taken note of.

As I have said, our speciality is to take an existing chassis and modify things slightly. But with a different powertrain and to get the qualification for that, including certification, for users to start to scale-up on manufacturing, we’re looking at a cycle of about four years. I would say that between now and then you start to scale up with the fleets – between 2011 and 2013/14, and then go consumer later on.

DL: And you see the mass-market for cars eventually going over to fuel cells within the next thirty years?

HW: Yes and most likely sooner than that. When you look at different energy vectors – biofuel, hydrogen, electricity and so on – it strikes me that the world of energy is actually fairly simple.

There are three things, in particular, to look at: 1, Where are the energy buffers – in the tank, car, petrol station or somewhere else? 2, You look at the regulatory framework; and 3, The capital and operating expenditures in the context of well-to-wheel lifecycle costs.

When you analyse the key drivers there, if you do more renewable on the power grid – which more countries are trying to do - that comes with problems of matching supply to demand according to how fast the wind is blowing. When surplus energy is generated, hydrogen is actually a very good way to store energy and quite a cost-effective one (certainly more cost-effective than flow batteries). So you can generate hydrogen from that.

And then there’s the carbon capture and storage debate. Countries will use the coal they have – because unlike renewables they can switch it on and off easily, but it’s not very clean. Pre-combustion carbon capture and storage can use Victorian technology to gasify the coal to form a hydrogen enriched gas which can be cleaned using a refinery type of cleaning kit which leaves pure hydrogen on one side and CO2 on the other which you pump back into the ground. That could yield a lot of hydrogen.

I believe there are long-run trends that are working in favour of the production of clean energy through hydrogen. And an industry has to come together – top to bottom – to develop and produce the products that people want to buy, at an appropriate price – hydrogen fuel cell powered cars for example – alongside a viable supporting infrastructure.

History tells us that at various times there can be some rapid technology switches that have big implications for the way we live. Usually there are multiple factors that bring about the change, say three of four key drivers that can push a market in one direction so that things happen very quickly.

Mobile phone telephony is an example. You needed cell masts and phones to kick it off. To begin it was expensive. When the infrastructure was deployed, it needed a catchment area and then cell phone operators moved in with propositions that made commercial sense by getting many users on board at point of sale cheaply.

Ultimately it was a business model innovation more than a technology innovation.

Look at the regulatory framework applying to vehicles and the direction it is moving in, the growing pressures internationally to reduce CO2 emissions, governments and cities interested in cleaner technologies in all areas, including transport – where we believe we have a unique contribution to make with commercially viable technology. I think we are on the cusp of one of
those technology switches.

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Dr Henri Winand

Intelligent Energy, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director Dr Winand joined the Board as Chief Executive on 1 September 2006.

He was most recently Vice President of Corporate Venturing at Rolls-Royce plc, the power systems provider for land, sea and air.
 
During his time with Rolls-Royce, Dr Winand managed a power systems business, introduced new manufacturing technologies into the group and was responsible for defining and supervising the implementation of strategies for deriving additional value from the group’s technology assets (involving serving on the
boards of directors of some of the joint ventures in which Rolls-Royce invested).

Dr Winand has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, a Masters of Business Administration from Warwick University and a BEng from Imperial College, London.

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