Insights from engineering a cleaner future with Caroline Hargrove conversations in cleantech season two episode seven
Caroline Hargrove CBE has a background based in engineering many of us would be envious of.
From working at McLaren on F1 simulators and being CTO at Babylon Health during an incredibly critical time (that’s right, the pandemic!) to being named one of the 50 most influential women in Engineering in the UK and a CBE for services to engineering in 2020 – her impact on both the world of engineering and the wider world is evident.
A leading force within the sector, her profile means Caroline is a voice to truly be listened to when it comes to both technical know-how and career insights. After sitting on the Ceres Board for three years, Caroline decided it was time to make her passion her career and live her purpose by joining as CTO in November 2021.
Read on for Caroline’s key insights and be sure to listen to the podcast in full here.
What about cleantech really appealed to you?
The appeal started from an early age; I am of the generation that was a kid when we heard about acid rain. It shows my age, but you know, it's like, oh, my goodness, this is not good, this is a problem that we need to do something about it. And so, I had this idea that we need to help solve some of those problems was there.
I had advice from one of the teachers when I started my degree at university, and I thought, “should I do an environmental course or something similar?”. We didn't have those courses at the time, but this lecturer told me if you have a really good toolset, if you equip yourself with a really good understanding of engineering generally, or solving problems, you'll be able to attack any problem or career path.
You don't have to have necessarily a degree in something with the final application if you have because, with a degree, you are learning to learn about the subject, right? What we all do in our jobs is not what we did in our degree, but the degree prepared us for this.
I think it's this idea that even though I wanted to do something for the environment, which was more of a generic thing, I'm glad in the end, that even though it was the most roundabout way of getting to it, I'm still glad of that advice, because it meant was, I could rely on a solid background that allowed me to apply for these types of jobs that are interesting.
How are you finding the switch from MedTech to cleantech?
I think the interesting thing about what we're doing at Ceres - and I’ll say this because it’s not my area – it’s complex electrochemistry, I arrived at it thinking whew, okay, this is complicated.
Luckily, we have a lot of fantastic experts, but it is hard technology. What has stopped fuel cells in the past is that the materials either have some rare earth metals, which are problematic, or expensive ceramics, which means that the cost of doing this particular technology has been a barrier to adoption because let's face it, we don't pay the full cost of fossil fuel energy thanks to subsidies.
Technologies like what we're developing, it's not unique to Ceres, in the sense that people have been working on fuel cells for some time. But what we all must do, and what Ceres is now doing, is tailoring the best application for this type of technology, so that it becomes commercially viable and helps us decarbonize that sector.
We're not the next Apple, and so when we're recruiting people, we've got to explain what we do a bit more because we are working within other products, essentially, and in a chain.
But if we look at applying our tech to the marine industry, it's something like 8% of our Co2 is, comes from the marine industry, which globally is enormous. It’s not like it's niche or only makes a small impact; it's big, but it's just not something that we encounter every day.
Hence, why it's an interesting and motivating area to work in, yet we still must explain it to new recruits, so they understand where that technology fits in and how they’re making a difference.
Ceres fuel cells, the clean energy transition and electrolysis
Yeah, so a fuel cell, essentially is an interesting system that turns molecules of gas into electricity. What we're used to using to produce electricity is something using either a turbine which turns to generate electricity, or something like a diesel engine which will be firing a generator to create combustion and heat, and then this heat is turned into electricity. All these types of sources are well known and used everywhere in the world, but a lot of them as we also know, are not very good for the environment.
With fuel cells, you put in a gas; if you use hydrogen (H2, which is hydrogen) and you mix that with air, which has a lot of oxygen in it. By doing this combination of the two, you're producing water (h2o), whilst also releasing electrons in the process, creating electricity. One cell doesn't produce very much, so we stack a lot of those cells into a bank of cells called a stack, and then you stack those stacks together and by the time you have a stack of them, you can do five kilowatts of electricity.
In a fuel cell like ours, it's good in the sense of, it produces energy over a long period. So ideally you use them for power-hungry things such as data centres, which are incredibly power-hungry. A lot of data centres are powered by diesel because they don't want to put them on the grid as they use huge amounts of energy.
However, one problem that we face is that not much green hydrogen exists currently. The last thing you want to do is use dirty hydrogen because it's not going to help with global warming and climate change. What we can do though, is either mix hydrogen with natural gas or use natural gas directly.
Now, if we do that, we're still producing co2, but we're producing a lot less than if you were to burn it. When you don't have combustion, you have a lot less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Sulphur Oxides (SOx) by-products which are bad for us humans to breathe in, which is what the big scandal for diesel was about.
Another benefit of not having that combustion is that about a third less co2 is produced. So not only is a fuel cell useful when you have the hydrogen available, but we can also start using it to reduce our carbon footprint straightaway with natural gas or biogas. So, it’s not only good for net-zero, but it's good as a transition technology.
The great news is you can run it in reverse too. If you're next to wind power, you would essentially bring in hot water along with electricity from the wind power to break out your oxygen and your hydrogen, and suddenly you are creating green hydrogen - providing your electricity comes from renewables.
Another benefit of this is that the technology which has been developed for years and years and years in fuel cell mode is dual purpose - we don't have to go back 20 years of development to also then advance the electrolysis side. Again, electrolysis has been around for 100 years or more in an alkaline fashion, it's just it couldn't be made competitive from a cost perspective.
It's horses for courses, which is what a lot of people have got to understand. They try to pit one fuel cell technology against another which isn’t really the point. It’s about saying while one fuel cell technology isn't the right one for that application, this one is great for this application. It’s very similar to Tesla saying, we're creating EVs but what really need is a lot of other companies doing EVs because we need infrastructure – it is exactly the same for electrolysis and fuel cells. The more there are out there, the more people understand what they are and how they're used, which in turn will benefit every single fuel cell and electrolysis manufacturer.