Hopefully, the visualisations that Hot House create will help us accelerate the commercialisation process by ensuring we are able to demonstrate the commercial relevance of the technology across a range of different application spaces. Tim Fishlock, Business Manager at UCLB
Speeding up the commercialisation of hydrogen fuel cells at University College London
Hydrogen is hailed as a clean and environmentally friendly source of energy. Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen and water is the only waste product. However to power anything like a car the hydrogen needs to be stored at high density, in a compact space. To continually produce power, fuel cells need a constant supply of hydrogen, and traditional hydrogen fuel cells have been bulky because they need space to store hydrogen as a liquid or gas.
Researchers at the University of London however, have been working on a discovery made by chemistry professor Zheng Xiao Guo, who found that certain combinations of chemicals can be mixed together as powders and when heated slightly made to produce a large amount of hydrogen. High density chemical storage of hydrogen in solids like this can save a lot of space when compared to storage of hydrogen as a liquid or gas.
To help develop a method for turning this discovery into a commercially viable product, a team at UCLB, UCL’s technology transfer office, have been working with Design Associate Ian Ferris on the Design Council’s Innovate for Universities support programme.
Ian Ferris says: ‘The team saw the hydrogen fuel cell working with a cartridge containing the powders that could be activated when hydrogen is required, resulting in a power to weight ratio that far exceeds known competition. The market opportunity for a successful technology in this area is significant because to be approved for use in markets such as the automotive industry, it must meet some demanding safety and material property criteria, and other technologies don’t.’
Tim Fishlock, Business Manager at UCLB says: ‘The technology enables more hydrogen to be stored in, and released from, a solid than has been possible before. This project is all about how you use hydrogen as a fuel source and the scientific research had got to a point where it made sense to develop the commercial opportunity through proof of concept funding and to get a prototype device on the table in front of potential licensees. As for most hydrogen storage solutions the ultimate application for this technology is in the automotive sector, but there are a number of steps before this. More immediate commercial opportunities exist in markets that could be easier to access, such as for static fuel cells that could be used anywhere you’d now use a diesel generator or a huge battery pack.’
With the team’s long term objective being to push the technology in the automotive sector, Design Associate Ferris advised them to develop a strategy that helped them overcome any barriers to entry and that gave potential licensing partners all the information they’d need to buy in to the idea and want to support its development. The UCLB developers owned IP around the core technology, so were in a strong position to approach potential commercial partners.
Ferris also emphasised the need to target a broader market: ‘There was the option of pushing into military and static fuel cell sectors, but here the team needed to identify appropriate applications and target specific licensees. Here the timeframe to market is likely to be shorter, and there’s less demanding development hurdles. For both routes to market, identifying appropriate development funding is critical.’
Defining a design project
Fishlock says: ‘there are two embodiments of the technology. One is more complex, but both have advantages. For the simpler case, the academics are using the proof-of-concept funds to build a prototype to exemplify the advantages of the technology. On the more complicated embodiment we are working with design agency Hot House to create visualisations that communicate how it could work.’
Ferris says: ‘Design opportunities should centre on supporting the communication of the product’s virtues. At the start, there was no name for the technology and no communication materials of any kind. I suggested the team consider developing some branding that names and creates an identity for the technology that can be used to develop supporting comms collateral that makes visible the technology to appropriate stakeholders. There were also opportunities to undertake basic mechanical design for manufacture models that could support any technical prototype developed by the academics.’
Design project management
Ferris has helped the team at UCLB understand where there were opportunities for them to use design to improve their product or the way they communicate what it can do. After identifying the need for a design agency which could help them develop the product by communicating its potential Fishlock says: ‘The key way Ian has helped us was introducing us to high-quality design agencies. When we asked a number of them to pitch for the job, I was really impressed with the calibre of the responses we got. Ian has helped us frame the design challenge in terms that the agencies could really understand and in managing the pitching and briefing process.’
The design project management offered by Design Associate Ferris has lead to the hydrogen storage team commissioning design agency Hot House to, ‘create visualisations for the more complicated embodiment,’ says Fishlock. ‘They’ll be delivering a two stage design project to include design research with the people who may use this technology. The project will deliver visualisations of how the technology could look and work, communication materials explaining why the technology has been developed and how it could evolve, and guidance on design for manufacture including exploration of the materials and processes that could be used to turn the technology idea into a commercial product.’
This project will work in parallel with the academics who are developing the prototype. ‘We’re hoping one stream of work will feed into the other,’ says Fishlock. ‘Where there are quite different ways of proving the technology we think the process Hot House goes through will be able to feed in to the more simple idea.’
‘Ultimately, the success of this project will be determined in the same way as all other technology commercialisation projects we run at UCLB. If we secure a licensee that will mean we have successfully commercialised the technology,’ says Fishlock. Before then, ‘hopefully, the visualisations that Hot House create will help us accelerate the commercialisation process by ensuring we are able to demonstrate the commercial relevance of the technology across a range of different application spaces.'
The success of the design approach will take longer to judge he says: ‘If, over the next six months or so, this project attracts attention from licensees, we may measure the design approach taken against some softer success criteria like how it has changed the way we work and added value to the commercialisation process. So far, the academics are very positive about anything that helps secure a positive knowledge transfer or commercialisation outcome.’ But already Fishlock says Innovate for Universities has provided UCLB with some lasting design advice: ‘We were keen to improve our ability to plug in to relevant design agencies and Innovate for Universities has really helped us do that.’