Thanks for taking the time to talk to H2 View, Sabina. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and how you become involved in the hydrogen sector?
I started working in the hydrogen sector in 1997 and I found my way there somewhat by luck. As a mechanical engineering student, I wanted to work in a field that in some way would help make a positive difference in the world. I started working in biomedical engineering when I graduated, but after a year developing medical devices, felt like something was missing.
After this, I got invited by some former classmates to join a ski trip with the company they had joined after graduation, Ballard Power Systems. It was on that trip that I learned about hydrogen and fuel cells, and within a month, I was working there!
I caught the clean energy bug the first time I built and tested a fuel cell stack and have been an advocate for hydrogen ever since.
You’re currently Principal of Zen Clean Energy Solutions. Can you tell us a little more about the firm, its position in the hydrogen economy and your role here?
Zen Clean Energy Solutions is a consulting firm that specialises in hydrogen and fuel cells. We are a small firm making a big impact by working with government and industry clients to make sure hydrogen is realising its full potential to help decarbonise energy systems and transition to zero emission transportation.
We do this through developing hydrogen strategies, develop and managing large consortium projects throughout the hydrogen value chain and working with end users to develop plans to transition their transportation fleets from today’s fossil fuel baseline to a fully zero emission fleet that is best suited to their operational needs.
I co-founded Zen with my business partner Jeff Grant six years ago. As Principle and co-founder, I oversee the strategy, technical services and project management parts of our business.
Aside from with Zen Clean Energy Solutions, have you held any other hydrogen-related roles? If so, can you tell us a little more about these?
I spent 18 years at Ballard Power Systems before deciding to branch out as an entrepreneur at co-founded Zen Clean Energy Solutions. My first role at Ballard was as a systems engineer, working on fuel cell engines for submarines, which gave me a really good understanding of how the overall system operates.
Within a year, I moved into Ballard automotive group, which was growing really fast because of the new partnership with Daimler and Ford to develop the first series production fuel cell cars – meaning designing for cost reduction and high-volume manufacturing, rather than a one-off prototype.
I was assigned to work on a side research project to develop a “ruler cell” concept that was totally different than Ballard’s serpentine cell architecture used in its previous stacks. The long and straight ruler cell was meant to just be an R&D tool to study flow and operating conditions in a cell. That project resulted in some breakthrough in cell performance and power density, and quickly moved from an R&D tool to becoming the cell architecture chosen for the automotive programme.
This was a really challenging and amazing period of career growth for me, because as an engineer in my mid-20s, I ended up as the main technical interface between the Ballard fuel cell stack team, the fuel cell system team and the automotive OEMs. I learned how to take a systems approach to developing new technology that has stuck with me ever since.
After spending the first ten years of my career in technical roles, I decided to move onto the commercial side of Ballard’s business as a Product Manager. It was so important for me as an engineer to learn about what it takes to build the hydrogen ecosystem that is needed to actually get fuel cells into the market.
What has it been like as a woman in this sector? Have there been any challenges you have faced?
With my engineering background, I have tended to work with the technical teams on projects I’ve been involved with over the years, and these teams tend to be heavily male dominated. It can feel intimidating and lonely at times being the only woman in the room. I found this particularly challenging early in my career when I lacked experience and confidence and was often thrown into the deep end leading difficult negotiations with the automotive partners that Ballard was working with at the time.
I’ll never forget after a particularly tough meeting back in the late 90s, when a senior manager from one of the automotive companies pulled me aside at a group dinner. I thought he was going to give me a hard time for the heated technical debate we had been having earlier in the day, but instead he asked me if I would mentor a young female engineer on his team. He recognised the importance of having a diverse set of voices in the room and want to grow that in his own team.
With those challenges in mind, and any others you may have faced, what is one piece of advice you would give to yourself if you could go back and start your career all over again?
If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self to take more chances and ignore the self-doubt that held me back at times. I turned down a couple of big promotion opportunities throughout my career because I felt I wasn’t fully qualified. I wish I had said yes to those opportunities and recognised that most people are scared and don’t feel fully qualified when they make a big step up in their career.
Focusing now on the positives, what is the best part of being a woman in this sector?
The hydrogen sector is an extremely exciting and fast-paced field to be involved in today. I learn something new every day and I know that the work we are doing is making a positive difference to the world we leave behind for our children. This matters deeply to me on a personal level, and it drives me to keep moving forward.
And finally, if you could share just one hydrogen-related message with our readers, what would it be?
Hydrogen is needed to achieve a net-zero energy system – there is no way to get there without hydrogen playing a really important role alongside direct electrification, biofuels and emissions offsetting technologies. It’s not a question of which technology will win; we need them all and we need to get them out there as fast as we can.