Jordan Blum, editorial director, Hart Energy: How does the energy sector solve its workforce challenges? We are here at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Energy Center symposium in Austin to find out. I'm joined by Dr. J.P. Clarke, let me get this right, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm joined for this Hart Energy Live Exclusive interview. Thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

John-Paul Clarke: Happy to be here.

JB: And now just to get right into it, just wanted to get your take on just how important the energy center here is and just how we're working to solve the industry's workforce challenges and solving the challenges of the Great Crew Change, as they call it.

JPC: Yeah. Well, it's interesting you asked that question because centers like the KBH Energy Center are important that they bring together all aspects of the problem. Over time in academia and industry, we tend to be stove piped.

JB: Right.

JPC: So the policy folks, the legal folks, the engineering folks all work independently. And that law policy engineering, of course the business perspective are all important to bring together. So I personally am excited that the school of engineering is now part of KBH Center. I think, for me, that is a great way to tackle things holistically. As an aerospace engineer, I'm very much of a systems engineering person. You got to think about all aspects of it. I've taught systems engineering and also system architecting for many years, and I think that's important, having all aspects. So I think the KBH center is incredibly powerful and useful in University of Texas being together.

But it's also a way I think to get new people excited. I used to teach at MIT, I taught at Georgia Tech, and I now teach here at UT, and in all of those places when I was there, but even more so now, when I talk to my former colleagues, the students these days are excited and energized by large scale, challenging problems that have an environmental bent to it. So in the aerospace industry, we used to say it doesn't matter if it's a new flight or an accident, the kind of folks who want to solve the problem get excited by both.

JB: Very good.

JPC: And when you have a challenge, like how do we basically make our society environmentally sustainable, economically sustainable and culturally sustainable, those challenges are the kind of things that the students, especially undergrads, are excited about. And I think by harnessing all these three things, we can actually create something that is incredibly exciting for undergrads. If we do it right, I don't think we'll have a problem with the workforce because people are excited by big challenges.

JB: So really a motivation to get into oil and gas is to make it cleaner, more sustainable.

JPC: Exactly.

JB: Very good. Not just that, but new business opportunities are constantly emerging.

JPC: Yeah, and different... It's a combination. It may not be oil and gas and everything. Hydrogen, I like hydrogen in particular. But there are other different... batteries, how do you create batteries and worry about the upstream supply chain issues, geopolitical stability in our supply chain? And then also in batteries, disposal or renewal of batteries, that's also a great challenge. So I think by looking at all of the different energy sources, energy transmission means, energy consumption means and thinking about them holistically. We're going to have a new generation of folks who are not only going to be thinking this is the only way, but also understand all the trade-offs and are able to transition our society over time.

JB: Very good. Well, can I get you to elaborate a bit on just how hydrogen is emerging as a big part of the business within the energy sector?

JPC: Well, hydrogen has been talked about for many years as a solution for storing renewable energy or energy that's produced in a steady state, like hydro is a big thing. But our demand doesn't actually isn't steady. Typically, in most countries, demand during the day is higher than at night. I know a few countries that it's actually higher at night, which is not so good for your economy. It's a better indicator of economic growth when your energy consumption during the day is higher than during the night. So then we talked about it, and the whole thing was electrolysis and the electrolyzers weren't efficient as they're getting more efficient now. And then also the transportation. So for me, tackling those two and also the forming, which is consumed those three things. And so for me, I'm not into electrical engineering, so I wasn't that in that.

But as a systems engineer, we figured out a pipeline isn't the only way to transmit power. Neither is electric [through an] overhead, electric line. There are other ways you can put them in modules. And we transport oil and other ammonia by rail and by trucks. And so the other thing is getting into a form factor that makes sense for the industry you're in.

And so you have to look at all three of those things, production, efficiency, transportation, and the way in which is consumed and make sure that you come up with a solution. So that's the kind of thing where I think we've made great progress in the past few years. And I can speak most knowledgeably about aviation, that when you do the systems analysis like I and my colleagues have at the company that I co-founded, we found that there was a sweet spot that made sense. Obviously, for ships it may be different, it may not be hydrogen straight. It may be ammonia as another solution, and then you could split the ammonia at the point where you're going to consume it.

But for aviation, that's not so good because the efficiencies and the weight kills you for all that infrastructure required to do that. And so I think hydrogen is growing now because people are thinking outside the box. We've always just been thinking, "Oh, well we got to either produce it onsite, with green electricity that's put through the entire system, or we're going to have to basically pipe it" and thinking about adding into natural gas pipelines and then taking it out, all of those or building dedicated pipelines. All of those things are quite expensive. But by thinking outside the box, you're able now to basically bring it to the fore. And there's a huge push for hydrogen as part of the president's plans and to drive the cost of hydrogen down to $1/kilogram by the end of this decade, which is quite an aggressive thing, but it's happening.

JB: Very good. And do you want to expound a bit just on the work you're focusing on with the company you co-founded, Universal?

JPC: Yeah, Universal Hydrogen. Yeah. So that was an interesting thing, that company got started at dinner, which actually I've started four companies and all of them started at dinner.

So I think I should go have more dinners with friends. And so we were actually sitting down thinking about what could we do to really green aviation? And aviation is an incredibly hard industry to green. In fact, one of my former colleagues at MIT said that the last kilogram of hydrocarbon fuel will be burnt in a gas turbine engine in the aircraft. Because the energy efficiencies are just so great in jet fuel. And so we were saying, "Well, how do we do that?" And then I am a student of history, even though I'm an engineer, and I thought back to why do you have Exxon and Texaco and Shell petrol stations or gas stations we call them in the U.S.?

And the reason is because those companies had to build out their entire distribution system. They had to deliver their product. And they had really incredible excess capital, I call it, because profits were huge in the good old days. So, they actually built out that system. Now we looked around and we started thinking to ourselves at dinner, "Is there anybody who's willing or capable of building out such a system to distribute hydrogen?" And we realized it's really tough and very expensive. The estimates are up as high as $16 trillion for a distribution system for hydrogen. And so we said, "Well, what could we do?" And we said, "Well, there's a huge and a very efficient distribution system that already exists." It's called intermodal freight transportation system spurred on by the container shipping industry, which basically changed, revolutionized shipping. Before this they had longshoremen going in the bowels of a ship pulling stuff off.

And so we said, "Could we design a module that could fit nicely in indigent numbers in a container that could also just be fit in the airplane, a nice form factor, that you could take off two or three of them, drop them in an airplane like a battery and then reuse them." And so we thought about that thought exercise that night and a couple of days later we got together on a Zoom call and that time it was in the midst of COVID. And I said to the guys, "I think we can do it."

And we did some calculation around can we have enough hydrogen airplane to get the kind of range you need? And so that was that in a dinner conversation about how can we do things differently? How can we make lead to the company? And we raised $85 million last year in a series A and series B, well C and series A, C, and B, and we're in the process, you know how it is. And we had our first flight to the world's largest fuel cell electric airplane early this year, March 2.

JB: Congratulations.

JPC: That was an incredible day. In fact, I couldn't even go to the first flight I had to teach. I was teaching flight dynamics, but I showed the class a little bit of the video while we were in there. So that's been really cool. And we got our G-1 paper recently, which is the FAA's [Federal Aviation Administration] document that describes the basis on which the airplane, the supplemental tax certificate will be issued on a certification basis. And we've flown the airplane from Washington State down to Mojave Desert. We're doing some more flight tests, getting ready for the next set of flight test campaigns and stuff like that.

So it's really exciting, and it just proves that if we think creatively and think holistically in a systematic way about problems that get a bunch of smart people, but also cool people, because it's always important, who you like working with together. You can come up with some quite innovative solutions. And I'm optimistic, very much so, here at UT with the addition of engineering to the center that things like this will develop and holistic solutions will develop.

JB: Great, and good luck with Universal. Thank you so much for joining us at the KBH Energy Center for this Hart Energy Live Exclusive Interview. For more information, please read and watch online at