At the 2022 ACT Conference and Expo Horizon Educational took the opportunity to sit down with Professor Blekhman, PhD who is the head of CSU LA’s efforts to develop and build-out a holistic hydrogen and fuel cell program. In the United States there are few professors who have done more to advance hydrogen and fuel cells than Blekhman. The professor has helped to get a hydrogen fueling station built at the university, he helped to setup a FCEV fleet for use by students and faculty at the university, and he continues to advance one of the most robust workforce development programs at the college and university level in the United States.
HE: At the end of 2021 you applied for a grant for workforce development from the California Energy Commission, Clean Transportation Program and California Air Resources Board, and then towards the end of February this year you were awarded the grant. What was the motivation behind applying for the grant, and what is CSU LA doing with the funds now?
Professor Blekhman: CSU LA has been involved in hydrogen education for 15+ years. It includes a course on fuel cells and a course on the hydrogen fueling station at CSU LA and how it operates. However, the training is limited in terms of in-depth preparation for industry jobs in the hydrogen economy. In parallels several years ago, we started hiring students at the hydrogen station for internships and help around the station. By virtue of working there, students were learning about the technology, how it works, and how it needs to be maintained. Yet, it is very timing consuming for the management and staff to train the students.
With the funding from the California Energy Commission we would like to establish a more formal training process for our interns, and also establish a pathway to future employers so that employers are compensating students for internships while students are at CSU LA. In addition, we are partnering with Cerritos Community College as a pilot that we are hoping to expand in the future to create a pipeline of students who will be ready to come to CSU LA.
In terms of the California Energy Commission award, February was the announcement that CSU LA had been selected for the award, but it takes several months to execute the contract and approve it through the California Energy Commission. Hopefully we will start working soon, meanwhile internally we are preparing to determine how we will roll out the program. We are talking to companies in the hydrogen and fuel cell industry, like First Element, which hired several of our students recently. First Element can provide training modules for the program to relate in-classroom learning to real life.
HE: A lot of organizations in the hydrogen and fuel cell industry say they are unable to fill all of their open positions, especially on the technical side with fuel cell stack development. Do you feel that this is due to the industry being relatively new or do you feel that it is from something like a lack of building the needed partnerships with colleges and universities?
Professor Blekhman: I believe the difficulty is that government agencies have not expanded support to hydrogen and fuel cell education as early as it should have. There was an investment into technology development in the private sector, and to some degree government agencies were thinking that companies would invest in education. But not every company has invested in education. This has caused education to be limited in what it can supply. In terms of community colleges their instructors are not training on hydrogen and fuel cells, and at the university level there is a limited number of professors training/teaching hydrogen and fuel cells. This is the reason for the partnership with Cerritos Community College to train community college instructors. We are very happy that California Energy Commission provided a first step funding, .5M, for zero emission vehicle workforce development, and that is a valuable step in the right direction.
With our program we are hoping to seed learning about hydrogen at both community college level and bachelor’s degree level. Thus, addressing needs for technicians servicing future hydrogen technologies as well as engineers that will be experts in their respective fields and also hydrogen technology. CSU LA offers engineering degrees in civil, mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, computer science, and technology engineering. Universities working with companies will allow companies to request specific engineering degrees/areas of study for their needs/industry needs.
Up until 2021 California Energy Commission was funding community colleges only, which limited the ability to develop programs at the university level.
HE: What do you feel the government at the state and federal levels in the U.S. can do better to support hydrogen and fuel cell education?
Professor Blekhman: I think the correct approach is being developed at this point. When companies are awarded government funding one requirement with the funds should be that companies spend part of the funds with colleges and universities for projects and research.
California is currently going towards that kind of a model.
HE: Where do you stand on the debate of making bi-polar plates out of metal vs a carbon material like graphite?
Professor Blekhman:I believe bi-polar plate development is application driven and in some cases graphite is a better use case. Metal is better when thin plates are needed.
HE: Presently manufacturers like to talk a lot about their fuel cell stacks, but none of them can say why they have the best fuel cell stack. Do you think there is a need in the industry for an independent testing lab, perhaps at CSU LA, where different fuel cell metrics can be determined to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Professor Blekhman: Of course, CSU LA would be happy if such a center would be established. Companies conduct certain tests, national labs can do this type of work, and there are very specific testing procedures that are recommended to evaluate fuel cells. Of course, reputable fuel cell manufacturers conduct these tests because if fuel cells fail it will result in reputational harm. I am very impressed with Toyota since it warranties its fuel cells for 100,000 miles. Right now, that kind of warranty is the best test.
HE: Is there any collaboration between the different CSUs and UCs in California to produce and adopt a state-wide curriculum focused on increasing the number of students who can go onto fill MEA engineer and other technical positions within the hydrogen and fuel cell industry?
Professor Blekhman: UC Irvine has a national fuel cell center where they conduct a lot of work in fuel cell and hydrogen technology development. I am also aware that some people at CSU Northridge and CSU Humboldt do such work, but I would not say there is a significant collaboration. And, of course, I would be very happy and open to collaborate with other universities, and that, again, could be stimulated with external funding. If there is an industry interest combined with government interest to establish cross university programs, then that would be very useful.