Hydrogen Proselytizer
By Tad Vezner


ike Graff (CHE ’77) didn’t simply find himself in the hydrogen business—a business he’s now focused on to such a degree that he’s actively shaping its course. Rather, his journey into the world of an element he firmly believes will be instrumental in global decarbonization, energy production, and other Earth-saving priorities was not a matter of chance, he says, but a result of his early recognition of hydrogen’s true potential. 

“From where I started, for totally different reasons, I developed clear knowledge of hydrogen. Now somehow it’s in vogue,” says Graff, who has made the infrastructure of hydrogen production immeasurably more prominent as the chairman and CEO of American Air Liquide Inc. “While hydrogen alone will not drive a clean energy transition, a clean energy transition will not happen without it.”

Those who know Graff argue that his position as a prolific hydrogen proponent—one who has testified before the United States Senate about its role in depolluting the transportation sector—was hardly happenstance. Work ethic had more than a little to do with it.

“That guy has spent more time on airplanes and in hotel rooms than any human being I’ve ever met in my life,” says Pat Moore, who sits on Air Liquide’s North American review board, to which Graff reports. “You just don’t run across many people like him who have those kinds of standards day-in and day-out.”

After growing up on Chicago’s South Side and laboring through summers on his grandparents’ farm and working his way through school, Graff was the first in his family to go to college. He earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University just 15 months after receiving his bachelor’s from Illinois Tech in the same field.

Graff says his decision to pursue chemical engineering was driven by his fascination with its multidisciplinary nature. “It was a combination of all sciences, as well as mathematics and how things worked.…I always was interested in how things work.”

He packed his summers with internships that would encourage the application of those interests, including a stint at Standard Oil of Indiana’s plastic products division in Naperville, Illinois.

Upon graduation, he took a job at Standard Oil, which changed its name to Amoco, then later merged with BP to become BP Amoco.

Graff stuck with the company through those changes, starting out as part of the engineering team that worked in refining, before taking promotions to head offices in global operations, business development, and finance. He traveled often, from its offices in Switzerland to Hong Kong to Tokyo, to visiting customers throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas—ultimately streamlining the company’s global businesses until he left BP Amoco in 2004.

“Early in my career I was very fortunate because it was a time in the industry where there was an enormous amount of opportunity,” says Graff. The oil crisis had prioritized efforts to upgrade heavy high-sulfur crudes—essentially taking poor-quality oil and turning it into high-quality, environmentally friendly transportation fuels.

And that process—a high-pressure, high-temperature catalytic reaction in its relative infancy—took plenty of hydrogen. Early on, the element earned Graff’s respect.

“It’s an application of all the scientific principles I learned over time,” Graff says.

Armed with the knowledge and experience from BP Amoco, and after a few years of consulting, Graff took a job that he still sees as his calling: He became CEO of Air Liquide’s United States operations in 2007, then moved on to become president and CEO of American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc. two years later.

The company supplies industrial gasses—not just hydrogen, but also helium, oxygen, and others, which are required in almost every industrial process, including the production of foods, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and are critical to health care, especially medical oxygen.

Still, Graff sees hydrogen, specifically, as “ever more important.”

“The evolution has been such that hydrogen today is seen as one of the key energy vectors of the future that will help us decarbonize the transportation sector,” he says. “If you are looking to decarbonize an energy intensive industry—chemicals in refining, or steel, for example—you need very large quantities of hydrogen.” And by 2050, Graff believes, hydrogen will provide a full fifth of the world’s energy needs.

“Early in my career I was very fortunate because it was a time in the industry where there was an enormous amount of opportunity.” —Mike Graff

Over time, Graff’s responsibilities grew even more. By 2010, he oversaw all of Air Liquide’s operations in the western hemisphere. In 2012 he was given oversight of its worldwide electronic business and then Asia as well. He is currently the executive vice president of Air Liquide Group.

Delve beyond those titles and you hit an impressive bottom line, according to Moore.

“The revenues under his control represent two-thirds of the revenues of the entire corporation. …His success has been pretty incredible when you look at the growth of the businesses he’s been responsible for,” says Moore, who is CEO of PJM Advisors.

Graff ticks off the past or current projects he’s been involved in: building the world’s largest industrial-scale proton-exchange membrane electrolyzer on the northern side of Niagara Falls to help decarbonize the transportation sector. Building the company’s largest liquid hydrogen production facility in Nevada, now able to supply fuel cells for 40,000 zero-emission vehicles for several major automotive companies. Building the world’s largest hydrogen storage facility in a south Texas cavern, just 100 yards from the state’s first oil well. He’s also a life trustee at Illinois Tech.

Zooming out to glance at the big picture, Graff adds, “I think it’s critically important to help provide for the needs of not just the world around us, but our [immediate] communities, to help drive a better future for all of us. Our dedicated employees, who form the backbone and heart of the company, play a pivotal role in driving a better future for all of us. There’s something very rewarding about that.

“This ability to take innovation and technology and leverage it into the world around us, doing the right things in the communities you operate, reinforcing what you give back, I think it’s a very positive place to be.”●

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