Hydrogen holds great promise as a clean and affordable energy carrier, says Patrick Serfass, spokesperson for the nonprofit National Hydrogen Association based in Washington, D.C., and dozens of companies across North America are banking on the industry's near-term success. This industrial attention is turning predictions of future careers into actual jobs for scientists--so many jobs, insiders say, that companies are having to look long and hard to find qualified scientists to fill the positions. "Across the industry, there’s a shortage of people that have the advanced education or technical experience needed in the hydrogen industry," Serfass says.

Small business

New Jersey's Millennium Cell is one company that has been finding that the supply of workers with adequate training is not meeting demand. According to George Zalepa, Millennium Cell's director of human resources, "there are not enough qualified and degreed researchers out there. This has meant that it’s taking longer to find people."

Millennium Cell's focus is on portable technology. The company's specialty is hydrogen batteries for portable devices such as laptop computers and portable digital assistants. One of the company’s vice presidents, Rex Luzader, says that the company's products will soon compete very effectively against the conventional batteries on the market. "We can store three or four times as much energy as an equivalent battery in an equivalent space," he says.

The company is now testing its batteries on laser designators used by the U.S. military during combat operations to help laser-guided missiles find their targets. "It’s what the Air Force uses to target a laser dot on the place that the bombs are supposed to go," says Luzader. These devices currently use heavy lithium batteries that have limited lifetimes. Longer life and lighter weight are critical for this application, says Luzader.

Millennium Cell currently has 37 employees, 60% of whom have advanced degrees; 40% of those have Ph.D.s. When the company was starting out in 1998, they looked for scientists with 5 to 10 years experience to establish a solid foundation for the company. But now, Zalepa says, hiring has shifted to more junior researchers. "A lot of our recruiting needs are going to [be] entry level, junior level positions, and that’s who we’ve been targeting," he says. "We go out to universities, career fairs, and co-op programs and even go online looking for folks." The company is hoping to expand its research staff by about 20% by the end of 2006. He anticipates more hiring as the company continues to expand.

But finding qualified people is sometimes difficult. Zalepa says that he would like to fill openings in about 40 days but estimates that it currently takes about 90 days to find the right candidate.

Particularly appealing for Millennium are researchers with mechanical or chemical engineering backgrounds, Zalepa says. Chemists are also in demand, particularly those with inorganic and electrochemistry specialties and analytical expertise.


A lab at Millennium Cell. (Courtesy of Millennium Cell)

But technical skill is not enough. Business is done differently at companies like Millennium, says Zalepa. At smaller companies, key employees must take on a wider array of responsibilities, so employees have to be "well-rounded." "When you have graduate students coming out of academia into a very large chemical industry, they tend to be hired into narrow type of jobs, a job that is very focused and specific," Luzader says, "whereas in an organization like ours, more versatility is required. While there’s a level of expertise and specialization that is necessary in order for you to be successful to drive the project to completion, being in such a small organization you need to be multifunctional as well."

Exceptional written and oral communications skills--specifically, the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively outside technical circles--are very important at Millennium. "We do a lot of government programs where there’s interface between our researchers and our contracting unit, so it’s an important element for us," says Zalepa.

Big business


First testing of a Ballard-powered Ford Focus fuel-cell vehicle in Canada. (Courtesy of Ballard Power Systems)

Large multinational corporations are also searching hard for talent. Ballard Power Systems of Burnaby, British Columbia, specializes in zero-emission proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells for transportation, stationary, and portable use. For them, the key to advancing their automotive fuel-cell technology program (to choose just one example) is hiring materials scientists.

In particular, the company continues to look for people with postgraduate-level expertise in carbon fibres and polymeric materials. Twenty years ago, says Charles Stone, Ballard's vice president of research and development, hopes were high that carbon fiber was going to revolutionize the future, and a lot of young scientists were drawn to that area. But that industry hasn’t really reached its full potential, and interest in it has cooled. "We would certainly like to see people move more towards that as a support for electrocatalysts and also to carbon fibers as material composition for gas diffusion layers," both of which are vital components in fuel-cell manufacturing, Stone says.

The next 5 years, predicts Stone, will see growth in the fuel-cell industry as technology becomes more commercialized and new companies are created. He worries that universities are not training enough researchers to meet demand. In Canada, he estimates that only about 10 master's-degree scientists, and the same number of Ph.D.s, will be produced instead of the 50 to 80 that industry needs. "There’s a real opportunity for smart, entrepreneurial people, but they need to have a critical mass of skill sets in order to be effective," he says.

Stone estimates that the average researcher in his group is under 30. Some members who had only an undergraduate degree have gone back to get their Ph.D.s, with Ballard's sponsorship and further support from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Training

"Every one of our graduates in the last 4 years have found a job in an industrial or lab setting in their field, largely focused towards hydrogen and fuel-cell technology," says Ned Djilali, director of the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria in British Columbia (IESVic). Djilali believes that large-scale commercialization of fuel cells is around the corner; his institute, he says, is trying to train enough graduates to fill the needs of industry. But "we have far more applicants than we can take," he says. "We just don’t have the capacity."


Institute for Integrated Energy Systems group members. (Courtesy of University of Victoria)

Founded in 1989, IESVic develops technologies for sustainable energy systems. Currently, three postdocs and 28 postgraduate students are enrolled, with more than a dozen working on hydrogen-related research.

Anyone looking to focus their career on hydrogen energy, according to Djilali, needs to have a good balance between fundamentals and specific knowledge of the subject. Students need a good grasp of fuel energy thermodynamics and electrochemistry, but expertise in materials is the key. Echoing Stone, Djilali says that many of the problems of storage technology are materials issues, so this is the area in which the industry is looking to hire.

Check out the National Hydrogen Association’s New Hydrogen Job Board.

And they're looking to hire researchers with advanced degrees. "Most of the industry that’s involved in hydrogen fuel cells are very R&D [focused]," Djilali says, "and I see them hiring a disproportionately high number of people with graduate degrees because they need that advanced knowledge--and those skills can only be acquired in graduate school.”

The key to the success of the hydrogen industry, Serfass believes, is directly linked to the many benefits associated with the development of a vibrant hydrogen market; these include establishing national energy security, reducing harmful emissions, and promoting economic development. All of these points, he says, "will work together in creating jobs for the next generation of researchers."

Stone believes that fuel cells and the hydrogen economy are going to be major employers in the future. "The time when people were asking if this technology will be commercially viable--those days are gone. The question people are asking now is When?"

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

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Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.