As CEO of AFC Energy - one of the world’s leading developers of fuel cells for industry - Ian Williamson (Environmental Sciences, 1985, Grizedale) jokes that he finally has a job he left university qualified to do.
It took him 20 years to get there, but now he feels he is working, driven by the same passion for the environment that made studying Environmental Science at Lancaster so exciting. He is also putting into practice many principles that were part of his undergraduate studies there.
“I always thought that you should go to university to grow up,” he says. “And that you should do something that interests you and from which you can make a career.”
In his case, he is now working with AFC Energy, which he joined in 2011, to use fuel technology developed by NASA rocket scientists, to persuade the world to look at energy in a different way, with hydrogen, rather than fossil fuels as a focus. Their low-cost processes aim to reduce Western Europe’s reliance on hydrocarbons from politically unstable countries. He is also the president of the European Hydrogen Association and a Director of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.
His work is built on more than 20 years with Air Products UK in a succession of primarily commercial roles, the last of which was as Director of Hydrogen Energy Products for the company. His current role marries both science and influence, as he had originally hoped.
Lancaster drew him initially because it was one of the few universities offering Environmental Science as a first degree at the time. The Bedfordshire comprehensive school pupil had developed an interest in the environment after being co-opted by his teachers to take weather readings. The campus was also a draw, but the overwhelming magnet was the university’s proximity to the Lake District.
His interview there, when he was one of the few students to make it through the snow, cemented that view. The professors were generous with their time devoted to these intrepid arrivals and Williamson says: “This was clearly a place to stay and they conveyed that this was a subject in its infancy, but which they believed in actively - even outside university.”
One of them, was Ray MacDonald, who Williamson describes as an ‘enthusiastic spring’ and inspired him during his studies. Academically he found aspects of the course challenging, particularly the chemistry, but he was delighted that Lancaster’s system enabled him to study biology for the first time. It was a perfect location, in his view, for Environmental Studies. Field trips took him to Wales and the Lake District - where he did things like putting dye in rivers - was only half an hour away. His dissertation on acid rain required him to collect sediment from a boat in the middle of Windermere in summer. As he says: “What could be better?”
Socially he fell on his feet. All the fellow students on his corridor at Grizedale in his first year, stayed together throughout his time at university and four of them have become friends for life. He dipped his toe in university politics and became chair of the university’s SDP Society, which gave him access to politicians like David Owen and Shirley Williams, during a volatile social climate dominated by the miners’ strikes. It is an interest he has maintained to this day. His rugby involvement on the university 2nd team was short-lived, after a game against a teacher training college ended up in a fight. He did not feel inclined to play again.
The Milk Round had provided him with a job offer with Peat Marwicks early in his final year, but he had an eye on something more in line with his degree subject. He was delighted to land a job with Air Products after a rigorous process, in a commercial role. He stayed with the company for 27 years covering speciality gases, bulk gases and tonnage plants. Roles have included both cryogenic liquid and hydrogen product management within Europe, tonnage gas plant asset management and various marketing and commercial management functions.
In 2002 he landed the job of Director of the Hydrogen Energy Business and says: “It took me 20 years - but at last I had the job I was really qualified to do!” His decision to join AFC Energy - the world’s leading developer of low-cost alkaline fuel cell technology - has taken this a step closer. Focused on large-scale industrial applications, the technology is fully-scalable to provide clean electricity on-demand.
“We are trying to change the way the world thinks about energy,” says Williamson. Hydrogen is easy to obtain, but difficult to distribute and store, which is where sophisticated fuel cell science comes in.
Enthusiasm counts for a great deal with Williamson - it powered his studies at Lancaster, thanks to his teachers: “They really changed my world view,” he says. “Without the grounding they gave me and their enthusiasm, I would not be where I am. It does not get any better than that.”