Hydrogen goes boom

Hydrogen goes boom

After years of helping other companies get off the ground, David Bowles is chairing a company that will try to persuade us that hydrogen is the energy to use now and in the future.

As gadgets go, this box of tricks impresses. It will remove fears of a conk-out for drivers when electric cars come. For our defence chiefs it could slash costs of supplying our frontline soldiers in the outlandish likes of Afghanistan. In the kitchen it could certainly save our bacon – as well as our cakes, roast joint or whatever else is in the oven – come a power cut. The chairman of the fledgling business turning out this electricity generator with a difference is David Bowles, a man who has weaned more young companies for others than probably even he can recall during 30 years in the North East.

In the chairman’s seat at Entrust, now passing over to Ashley Winter, he has helped raise finance and other essential support for start-ups. But his succour goes back beyond to the 1980s and ‘90s when, as a director of Northern Development Company, he beavered non-stop to bring investment and jobs to the region. In 2001 he was a key figure setting up Northern Defence Industries, linking smaller manufacturers into the supply chains of global names.

He has worked to advance commercial radio in the North East too. When someone, somewhere recently reported Bowles as retired that must have been a joke. His enthusiasm today is for a County Durham start-up he now chairs, Inova Power Ltd. It markets a black box promising so much – with an injection of powder – not only to motorists, soldiers and householders, but to champions of sustainable energy and other environmentalists. The invitation to chair Inova and go with hydrogen surprised Bowles. He is after all a self-confessed “petrol head”. On first coming to the North East after service with the Royal Air Force in the Middle East, he had sold what he calls “a dustbin lid with an engine on”.

He’s being facetious of course, because while he was sales and marketing director of Flymo at Newton Aycliffe it developed into a global brand in outdoor and garden machinery – European market leader in fact, with Queen’s Awards. Bowles has continued to get his fuel kicks annually attending Le Mans 24 Hours race. But it looks as if he will have more to occupy him in the future.

“I was invited to talks about Inova’s project,” he says. “It took me only two lunches to decide I should agree to chair the business. I feel privileged now to have been invited – excited too.” Inova Power managing director Mark Nailis says: “We have known David for years. He has worked for appropriate organisations. His knowledge and experience of marketing is immense and he excels at helping to emplace governance and strategy. You can be very vulnerable if you don’t have governance in place properly these days.” Bowles’s task will be winning converts to new thinking and purchasing in fuels and electricity. The device Inova already has orders for is being developed in league with China and Sunderland University. It powers cost-effectively mobiles, laptops, home heating and lighting, refrigeration, air-conditioning – and, of course, cars.

“A child can understand and work it,” Bowles claims, though he is still getting to grips with it himself. He has in front of him a prototype hydrogen maker standing about a metre high, a third-of-a metre wide and two-thirds of a metre long. Bowles explains: “We have a powder to mix with water, the water being a storage medium and catalyst. Water is H2O after all, hydrogen and oxygen mixed.

“The powder drives the hydrogen from the water into storage elsewhere. Then at one end of the box we have a generator, and in the middle a fuel cell to turn the hydrogen produced into electricity.

“Then you plug whatever you like into the other end of the box, provided you have appropriate power there. We have initially a 400 watt unit – enough to power quite a few things.” Resultant electricity can feed fuel cells or meet increasing demand for direct injection of hydrogen into diesel engines. Bowles says of hydrogen’s potential: “Many people are after new ways to secure electricity so we have a bread and butter market of off-grid power. A number of firms have concerns that the National Grid is not as reliable as it once was. It could crash one day through a lack of investment over years. “One of our competitors has a deal to provide emergency power for Vodafone’s telephone masts in Africa. Their remote situation can threaten disruption.” Inova itself has been approached by a major supermarket group that may hydrogenise its electricity to sustain its store freezers during any grid failure. Individuals in a similar predicament could expect Inova’s box to keep their mobiles, laptops, home heating, refrigeration and air-conditioning going.

“It’s a growing area of interest,” Bowles says. “For every gram of our powder mixed with water you get 100 litres of hydrogen, and it doesn’t need much water.” And the water left post-process is potable. So in arid areas, all sorts of water can be used – brackish, sewage, even urine – and voila, drinking water as well as electricity results. Benefits are also evident in more conventional areas. In Japan, Hitachi has built a small town of houses self-powered by a combined heat and power unit fuelled by hydrogen. The German government has a similar project for 50,000 homes. China’s government – hugely committed to alternative energies – endorses hydrogen and is persuading businesses to adapt.

The Chinese firm Inova is partnering manufactures what Inova will sell under licence. Bowles says: “The Chinese are very interested in our market contacts and how we can build business in the UK and mainland Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

I think over the next 10 years or so we shall see massive expansion in the availability and use of hydrogen.” Sales of the powder promise a major income stream. “Using this appliance at home will be like running a Dyson or a steam iron,” Bowles suggests.

“Hydrogen is considered to burn three times more efficiently than any other fuel in use and is volatile. So, once water and powder are interacting the hydrogen must be properly stored. But the storage tank here provides the safeguards.” Inova, one year in the planning, has five directors who envisage something like 50 jobs arising within three years. Another 150 could benefit in the supply chain.

The management comprises managing director Mark Nailis; Gavin Townsend, operations; chief scientist Dr Bob Jennings (formerly head of catalyst research at ICI), and two ex-Nokia men, Christian Bunke the legal and patents specialist, and David Wilkinson, chief financial officer, who is well acquainted with venture capital firms. Their interest may be kindled by Nailis’s conviction as a chartered engineer that one application alone could be worth “a fortune”.

He has worked in Japan off and on for 20 years, developing and commercialising new products in consumer electronics. He has also worked on automotives design in Japan, on defence, and with a UK research centre specialised in hydrogen technology and fostering university spinouts.

Also involved is the Korean developer of the powdered process, Dr J Park, formerly a top researcher in battery technologies with Samsung. Inova occupies an incubator unit at NETPark Science Park. If the growth envisaged is achieved, larger premises on the park will be considered. Bowles reveals: “We have already had overtures from the South of England. We are not interested. Most principals in this business are based here. Why move south? “We are raising finance from here and we are already working with potential customers. Our generator is ready to sell. We are on the cusp.” Sunderland University has bought the first unit, a prototype that can be scaled down to power outputs as low as two watts – to recharge a mobile phone – or up to 100 watts to power a major combustion engine.

The Institute of Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice (AMAP) is working with Inova at the university to commercialise the product and operations manager Adrian Morris considers Inova’s system a major breakthrough for transport, dovetailing into the region’s current project to achieve minimal carbon emissions.

While AMAP has been concentrating on fuel cell technology for vehicles, Inova’s quest has been new ways to make hydrogen, and from there to see consumer anxiety towards electric cars reduced.

The major market resistance initially, Nailis expects, will be the relatively short distances they run without requiring a recharge – roughly 100 miles – and even less, in cold weather since the car heater will also run off the battery, reducing the power supply. An Inova box might extend the run by 20 to 50 miles, ensuring safe arrival at a recharging point. Nailis explains: “Our sister company in China has effected a continuous charge within an electric vehicle. So we could double such a vehicle’s range within months and are talking to vehicle designers along these lines. We would hope to work with a range of manufacturers.” He envisages a system akin to a video cassette, with users buying packs of five from garages to insert in the equivalent of a cassette machine in the boot.            Nissan’s electric car, the Leaf, will be made in Sunderland from 2013.