US firm HyPoint this week cut the ribbon at its new fuel cell research facility in Kent, in what has been hailed as a major coup for the UK’s green economy

You would not think it as you walk its narrow streets of half-timbered houses or admire its sleepy quay from a 250-year-old toll bridge, but the quaint Kent town of Sandwich has long been at the leading edge of UK science and innovation.

A sprawling business and research and development park which lies roughly  a mile north of the medieval town centre has the distinction of being where erectile dysfunction drug Viagra was discovered and commercialised. However, the 250-acre site that used to provide the UK headquarters for pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer laid relatively dormant since 2011, when the drugs company moved the majority of its operations. The park’s sprawling mix of offices, warehouses, and laboratories have since proved popular with Hollywood producers, perhaps most notably as the location where Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z attempted to find a cure for the zombie pandemic.

But the Discovery Park is now gearing up for a real world revival, after it officially opened its doors to another tenant that is at the forefront of science and innovation. HyPoint, a firm founded in Silicon Valley in 2019 by three Russians and three Americans, has picked the Kent research and development facility as its flagship location for the testing and production of its air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell technology, a solution it believes could usher in an era of commercial zero emission air travel as soon as 2030. The company is banking on progress in Sandwich to put it on track to clinch certification for its technology from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) by 2026 at the latest, which it says will then enable it to start mass producing hydrogen-electric powertrains for helicopters, planes, and other emerging forms of air mobility by next decade.

“We see ourselves as two or three years ahead of our competitors,” HyPoint founder Dr Alex Ivanenko told BusinessGreen at this week’s ribbon cutting event. “Our competitors are huge corporations, publicly listed stock exchange companies. They can’t move as fast as HyPoint can right now. As a start-up, we can move fast and be flexible and find a solution for the FAA.”

Despite the long way it has to travel to realise its vision of commercialisation, HyPoint has already generated significant buzz within the aviation industry. It is working with zero emission aviation pioneer ZeroAvia, aircraft research and development business Piasecki Aircraft, and industry giant Airbus, and has secured investment from a number of other major aviation players, including Alaska Airlines and United Airlines. Ivanenko said there was huge pent-up demand for the technology within the sector, noting than in the first 12 months after incorporation, the firm clinched development agreements with customers worth $8m.

This is partly because HyPoint claims to have cracked a challenge that has long flummoxed the fledgling zero emission aviation industry, which is how to develop a battery or fuel cell solution that can power aircraft across a long range without adding excessive weight to the airframe. The company claims its existing hydrogen fuel cell system, unveiled last March, significantly outperforms battery-electric and hydrogen alternatives on the market today, largely because it is much smaller and lighter than many of the approaches tried to date.

The lower weight is the result of an innovative air-cooling system that has replaced the heavier liquid cooling system found in alternative fuel cell systems. The company claims its approach has tripled the power-to-weight ratio of traditional hydrogen fuel cells systems, and it is banking on making yet more power and durability gains over the coming years through a partnership with chemicals giant BASF which will see the partners develop “high temperature membranes” that allow the hydrogen fuel cell’s air cooling system to operate at higher temperatures and more extreme pressures. HyPoint expects that by 2025, its fuel cell system will able to deliver 3,000 watts per kg of specific power, which is a 50 per cent increase on its current prototype, and enough to satisfy the requirements of narrow-body aircraft.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, CEO of ZeroAvia Val Miftakhov noted that HyPoint’s technology had the potential to outcompete incumbent fossil fuel technologies that had been decades in the making. “Turbine engines have been in development for decades,” he said. “People like Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney and GE, and others have largely perfected the engines, so they are really, really good. The competition is stiff. What we see in HyPoint’s technology is a possibility to meet the competition and meet it, almost head on.” It will be “really game changing” if the company achieves its mission to match the specific power targets of the turbine engines, he said, because it would mean zero emission flight would “have the same type of mission profile and capabilities of aircraft.” ZeroAvia, which achieved the first hydrogen-electric passenger aircraft flight above Bedfordshire, has a long-running relationship and supply deal in place with HyPoint.

Ivanenko noted that the primary motivation for companies looking to replace fossil fuel planes with hydrogen fuel cell alternatives will ultimately be as much commercial as environmental, predicting HyPoint’s technology could emerge as the “sensible economic choice” as soon as 2030.

“It’s not only a question of decarbonisation and sustainability,” he said. “Fuel cells can bring a lot of economic benefits. We can decrease total cost of ownership by 50 per cent. That means air companies can offer cheaper tickets. That will be the main motivation for big airline companies [to switch to hydrogen fuel cells].”

HyPoint’s plans for scaling up its operations in the UK are similarly ambitious. It intends to grow its local production capacity to 100MW by 2025 and then 1GW by 2028. In the nearer term, it has pledged to invest £11m in its Sandwich site and grow its UK team to 50 employees within two years.

HyPoint’s decision to set up shop in Sandwich is clearly a major coup for the UK’s zero emission aviation sector and has unsurprisingly been met with much enthusiasm from government at all levels. In a statement, Transport Minister Trudy Harrison cast the move “a strong vote of confidence in the UK and a major boost for green jobs in the local area”, while Industry Minister Lee Rowley claimed the development was in line with HMG’s purported mission to ‘level up’ regional inequalities. “Not only is this facility a win for the UK aerospace sector, but it is also a win for our plans to level up across the UK, and I look forward to seeing its footprint expand in the coming years,” he said in a statement.

And at the ribbon cutting ceremony, Conservative councillor Derek Murphy said he was “delighted” that the company would be working at the discovery park. “Kent is already a strategic highway for freight transportation by land and sea and air,” he said. “Whether it’s zero emission buses, or guilt free fight, we in Kent are increasingly at the centre of the green revolution for transportation.”

Ivanenko said the company’s decision to locate its hydrogen fuel cell facility in the UK had been driven by two factors. The first, he noted, is the UK government’s firm commitment to scaling up its hydrogen industry. “The UK right now is the capital of hydrogen innovation,” he said. “Lots of countries have hydrogen strategies, but your government and Boris Johnson have committed funds to invest in the industry. You can see that in the Aerospace Technology Institute and other grant programmes.” Plus there was the added draw of being close to other companies in the zero-emission aviation space, in particular ZeroAvia, one of its closest partners and collaborators, which is headquartered only 100 miles down the road at the Cotswolds Airport.

The second factor that enticed HyPoint to the UK was its fast-tracked immigration system for high skilled workers, according to Ivanenko. “I received my residents permit in just seven days,” he said. “Seven days! I spent about one year getting a green card in the United States…. Right now, it takes me about 24 hours to get a [UK] working permit issued [for members of] my experienced team.”

For all HyPoint’s optimism, the UK’s nascent hydrogen sector is continuing to facing considerable headwinds. Low carbon hydrogen production capacity remains modest and while there is a raft of blue and green hydrogen projects in the pipeline, developers insist they need long term policy clarity from government if the fledgling sector is to scale up. There is also a fierce debate raging over whether it is blue hydrogen produced using fossil gas and carbon capture and storage technology or green hydrogen produced using electrolysers and renewable power that represents the best long term bet for the industry.

What does Ivanenko make of debates raging over whether it is sensible to scale up blue or green hydrogen? He says, probably wisely, that he is staying out of it. “My system doesn’t care what type of hydrogen is put in it – blue, green, grey,” he said. “Of course, for airlines it important, but we are ready to work with any type of hydrogen. Moreover, we are more tolerant because the HTPEM [high-temperature proton-exchange membrane] can contain up to several percent of different contaminants inside in the hydrogen.”

HyPoint’s plans for Sandwich are clearly a major coup for the UK’s nascent hydrogen and zero emission aviation sectors. If the company’s ambitious plans are realised, the town could soon add zero emission flight to its roster of world changing scientific achievements. 

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