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Hydrogen-powered education races ahead

With an academic background in business studies, Timo Lukkarinen began his professional career with an aerospace company until a chance encounter at a wedding steered him in an altogether different direction. Sitting across the table from one of the founders of Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, Timo became convinced of the huge potential of hydrogen as a clean energy for the future.

Jumping fully onboard with the hydrogen revolution, Timo formed a company called Horizon Educational and set about helping students all over the world to discover the power of hydrogen for themselves. cH2ange spoke to Timo about radio controlled hydrogen car racing and his company’s innovative pedagogical approach.

Timo Lukkarinen, CEO of Horizon Educational

What is it about hydrogen that convinced you?

What particularly appeals to me is that hydrogen is a clean energy carrier that addresses the global problems of air pollution and climate change. I see hydrogen as a kind of glue that combines several technologies, links them together, and enables them to function sustainably.

I’m Swedish, and in Sweden we are very close to nature. My mother ran outdoor education centers, teaching students about biology and sustainability all across Europe. This part of my upbringing has no doubt influenced my career choices towards hydrogen and education. I also feel that it is important to be part of something that’s a little bigger than just our own lives. Promoting sustainable energy solutions is my way of doing this.

What does your company do?

While working for Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, I saw potential for providing training in hydrogen technology. So I formed a company called Horizon Educational and launched the H2AC initiative to create an engaging educational program to teach students about solving one of the biggest issues we face today — climate change.

“I’ve been told stories about teenagers and young adults that have found direction and aspiration through this educational experience.”

H2AC originated as a school program in 2015. Four years on and nearly 1,500 students have been through the program, 600 of these students in 2018. We have programs running right now in several US states, Australia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Netherlands, and we also have teams in Germany, Poland and Russia.

Can you tell us more about the H2AC Program?

The idea was to create an engaging program that helps students develop the necessary expertise and problem-solving skills to tackle a major global challenge like climate change. We do this by providing an exciting hands-on program of classroom learning and lab experiments, culminating with the students building their own hydrogen-fueled radio-controlled (RC) cars, which they put to the test by competing for supremacy in a dramatic six-hour endurance race!

“Our kits really connect with those who get more out of hands-on learning experiences.”

H2AC is a 4 to 6 month program, where students learn about climate change, air pollution, and renewable energy sources. They take part in hands-on lab experiments looking at wind and solar power, and the need to store energy due to their intermittency. This brings us to the different storage solutions such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

The final challenge for students is to develop a RC car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. This teaches them about power trains, fuel cell batteries, hybrid solutions, design tools, and advanced manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing, laser cutting, vacuum forming and 3D rendering. Having designed and built their cars, they put them to the test in a race against several other schools.

It’s an endurance race, the goal being to complete as many laps as possible within a certain time period. The teams need to work out a pit stop strategy, make refueling calculations, repair the car if it crashes, and maintain this focus under time pressure. Often some of the most interesting moments are when things go wrong. You really see the creativity of the students emerge when they are under pressure.

“Our data show that an absolute majority of program participants increase their awareness of sustainable energy, renewables and hydrogen”

Along with the main awards for the highest number of laps completed during the time period, there are also prizes for the most fuel-efficient cars, the most innovative engineering solutions, design awards that recognize improvements to the car exterior, and awards for pit stops and team management.

The 2018 international final was held in Germany, in collaboration with the University of Chemnitz. It was won by a Slovakian team with a car that completed an impressive 1,794 laps during the 6-hour duration.

Can you tell us about the RC cars themselves, and the improvements the students make?

The cars are basic 1:10 scale RC cars. Some teams take part in the competition for several years. The first year is all about learning and making minor amendments to the chassis and so on. In a team’s second year they will typically carry out a partial rebuild. Then in their third year they’ll turn up to the competition with a totally redesigned car.

“During my five and a half years in the industry I’ve seen a shift from prototype to product.”

These kids are really bright. Their ideas are amazing! We’ve seen some very innovative solutions to chassis configuration, weight distribution, thermo-management, and more.

What are the main skills that the students learn?

The program teaches human-to-human skills, like team specialization, organization, teamwork, leadership, project management, problem solving, peer-to-peer learning and presentation skills. Many of the high school participants do not feel comfortable standing up and talking in front of a group, or directing a group on what they need to do. By taking on team management roles they can really improve in these areas. Other students don’t understand the concept of specialization, so this is a great experience for them as they can see how this works.

Does it change their perception of climate change, clean energy and hydrogen?

Our data show that an absolute majority of program participants increase their awareness of sustainable energy, renewables and hydrogen, and that the experience encourages them to think more positively about becoming engineers and scientists in the future.

Do you meet people in STEM careers who began their journey as a result of an experience with Horizon Educational?

We don’t currently have the capabilities to follow up individual students to see if they go towards STEM careers. But we often meet PhD students and young scientists at various academic institutions around the world who tell us that they remember our science kits or equipment when they were at school.

The most rewarding experience I have is when teachers and parents come to talk to us after the program. I’ve been told stories about teenagers and young adults that have found direction and aspiration through this educational experience. That’s a heart-warming feeling!

Horizon Educational also sells hydrogen science kits. Can you tell us about these?

Our science kits have been available since the late 1990s and can be found in school laboratories throughout the world. They are really popular with physics and chemistry educators because they help them teach national curriculum concepts. People learn in different ways: some learn better by reading rather than doing, some by listening rather than reading or doing, while others learn better by doing. Our kits really connect with those who get more out of hands-on learning experiences.

You’ve created a real ecosystem around hydrogen that involves academia and industry. How have you achieved this?

About 16 months ago, Horizon Educational acquired Heliocentris Academia, which was established in 1996. It has a very strong name for hydrogen fuel cell education across the world. While Horizon Educational works mainly with middle and high schools, the focus of Heliocentris Academia is on higher education, including technical high schools, vocational training schools, undergraduate engineering degrees and higher Masters education in renewable energy systems.

We work closely with these institutions and learn what kind of renewable energy systems they are interested in. We then build the systems they need, install them in their laboratories, and teach the professors how to use the equipment.

The universities we collaborate with also work closely with industry. This has given us great connections with companies like Hyundai, Bosch and Toyota, that give us invaluable support. For example, in our US programs Toyota brings its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car into schools so that students can learn about real life engineering challenges.

“On the political side, there’s been a massive surge of interest in some developing nations, like China”

As an organization we are extremely interested in nurturing these close ties with industry and academia, as it creates an ecosystem that benefits all involved. Companies send employees into classrooms to share their experiences in STEM related careers, which benefits students; companies view their engagement as part of their corporate social responsibility effort; while employees gain valuable experience and skills in outreach and education.

Since you’ve been working in the sector, have you seen any signs of economic, political or social evolution in the field?

In economic terms, during my five and a half years in the industry I’ve seen a shift from prototype to product. When I started, hydrogen fuel cell cars were not sold to consumers. Today you can go to London, LA, Tokyo and other cities and buy a hydrogen car.

“Our educational solutions are generating increased demand from across the educational spectrum”

On the political side, there’s been a massive surge of interest in some developing nations, like China — it’s incredible what’s happening there. And meanwhile the EU and US stand strong in their commitment to hydrogen as an energy carrier, an enabler for the decarbonization of industry and as a way to move to renewable energy.

In terms of social evolution, I’ve seen change here through the interest in our educational solutions, which are generating increased demand from across the educational spectrum, from schools to universities. In my view, this is where we need to focus our efforts if we want to bring about a hydrogen revolution.