Catalyst breakthrough *could* change economics of hydrogen energy storage

icon_hydrogenI was in New York City doing a photo shoot for Corporate Knights when news broke that a duo of University of Calgary researchers had come up with a new, very inexpensive catalyst — i.e. rust — for generating hydrogen gas from water. Can’t believe I missed it, actually, because it received wide coverage — from MIT Technology Review to Canada’s Globe and Mail and CBC Online. Still, for those like me who missed it, here’s a quick rundown of why this is potentially important and what it means for the so-called hydrogen economy. I have no doubt that this has caught the attention of many big-name players in the hydrogen and broader energy sector since the research was published online in the journal Science.

According to the press release out of FireWater Fuel, the company spun out of this research, what has been discovered is a “breakthrough method of fabricating electrocatalysts made of inexpensive, non-toxic, and abundant resources, that facilitate the production of clean hydrogen from water.” An electrocatalyst, I should say, is simply a material that causes a chemical reaction to take place when an electrical current is introduced. Conventional catalysts used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen come from rare and expensive metals such as platinum, which costs more than $1,700 an ounce and is highly volatile price-wise. Pre-2008, it had reached over $2,000 per ounce. I remember a conversation I had with Ballard Power president John Sheridan back then. When the recession hit and platinum prices plunged to $800, Sheridan said Ballard locked in a large order knowing full well the price would rise again — and it has. Platinum prices matter to fuel cell developers. When they’re high, they can represent up to one-third of the total cost of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell. Water electrolysis units used to produce hydrogen are basically fuel cells that operate in reverse, meaning they also rely greatly on platinum.

(It should be said that platinum also plays a big role with internal combustion engine vehicles, as every catalytic converter in a vehicle (required by law) contains platinum. However, ICE vehicles generally contain less than one-tenth the amount of platinum as a fuel cell-powered vehicle.)

The need to eliminate our dependency on expensive platinum and other rare-earth metals is why the U of C breakthrough is potentially game-changing. If you can eliminate the need for platinum and replace it with a less exotic, more abundant and — most importantly — dramatically cheaper catalyst, then the dream of using hydrogen as an energy storage medium becomes that much more real. Indeed, FireWater Fuel claims it can make a competitive catalyst from “Earth-adundant” materials such as iron oxide — i.e. rust. We certainly have a lot of rust, so that’s promising. Cobalt and nickel are other plentiful compound metals that are used. Essentially, the researchers use light at low temperatures to produce mixed metal-oxide films for the electrodes that are used in the electrolysis process.  FireWater says its second-generation prototype “already outperforms the industry benchmark despite costing only a fraction of the price and consisting of environmentally benign materials.” By “fraction” they mean nearly 1,000 times cheaper. So far, the approach is more than 85 per cent efficient and the company is working to have its first commercial electrolyzer on the market by 2014, with a small home-scale unit possible by 2015.

The commercial units could, for example, be used to economically produce hydrogen from surplus, low-cost electricity (such as overnight wind energy production). That hydrogen could then be stored and used later to generate electricity (via fuel cell or combustion turbine) when the power is most needed, thereby smoothing out the variability of wind. It could also be paired with an off-grid wind farm in a remote area that wants to wean itself from diesel back-up generators. At home, a smaller unit could be used to produce hydrogen on demand from rooftop solar panels. If this becomes economical, it may remove a major barrier that has prevented fuel-cell vehicles from entering the market.

Perhaps. May. Could. Potentially. This would all be VERY cool if it came to fruition, but having reported on past announcements like this I will wait for more evidence of progress. This has to be proven at a scaled-up level, and there will certainly be many speed bumps and funding challenges along the way to commercialization. It’s also worth noting that this research isn’t entirely unique. There are many start-ups and research teams out there making breakthroughs in alternative catalysts for hydrogen production. Just type in “cheap + catalyst + hydrogen” in Google and you’ll see what I mean. One particular company, Georgia-based GridShift, claims it has developed a catalyst that uses no rare-earth materials and reduces catalyst costs by 97 per cent — i.e. catalysts at $60 an ounce versus $1,700 for platinum.

Back in 2010, when it emerged out of stealth mode, GridShift said it could produce hydrogen at a cost of $2.51 per kilogram, “effectively making hydrogen a more affordable alternative than gasoline at an equivalent cost of $2.70 per gallon of gasoline.” According to the company, “GridShift’s new method for hydrogen generation produces four times more hydrogen per electrode surface area than what is currently reported for commercial units today. This means that an electrolysis unit using the GridShift method would produce at least four times more fuel in the same-sized machine, or require a unit four times smaller than normal to make the same amount of hydrogen.” Three years later, there’s not much word from GridShift, even though it is backed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Still, founder Robert Dopp keeps putting out studies.

So in a nutshell, I’m very excited about this University of Calgary research and hope FireWater Fuels can get to a finish line that others have so far failed to reach. It would truly put hydrogen back in the running as an energy storage medium for renewables and fuel-cell vehicles, with the added irony that it would originate from Calgary — the financial heartland of Canada’s oil sands industry.

11 thoughts on “Catalyst breakthrough *could* change economics of hydrogen energy storage”

  1. I would not get too excited, for several reasons. Obviously, and you touched on this, they may not be able to do what they say. Then, we still have all the other issues of Hydrogen- storage, transport and making vehicles cheaply too.

    However, this may well play a part in stationary energy storage, like you said, for utilities and may be really good news for renewables.

    But for cars- I still think a battery will king in the end.

  2. @ Paul from Austin:
    at time exist several ways to convert H2 into Methanol by use of CO2
    – rather effective and as drop-in fuel.
    — and Note!: 50 kg H2 bind 1,000 kg — that’s the best to reduce blow-out of CO2
    With the obtained fuel can be also generated the power for charging your battery
    – e.g. with a stationary and decentralized unit – what is mostly wanted

  3. Hydrogen can be stored in any existing pipeline (up to 15% enrichment). Thank god they published in Science, harper would have sunk this ship immediately. Fuel cells can go toe to toe with electric vehicles any day. We shall see who prevails…

  4. Judging by the financial investment and moral burden endorsed by the U.S. tenants of power to destroy the German-Libyan PV-Hydrogen coalition — i.e. $1B (+ $300M from their French vassal Sarkozy) to kill Gaddafi — I guess that ANY hydrogen breakthrough will mobilize similar destructive efforts from Uncle Sam’s Big Oil and France’s nuclear lobbies… which, BTW, explains why Germany, although an NATO partner, didn’t participate in the assassination plot!

    Some reminders for the doubters: in the early eighties, a number of German companies headed by Daimer-Benz set up a joint venture with Gaddafi to launch a Swiss-authored project for a giant underground hydrogen production plant in the Libyan mountains 60km south-west of Tripoli — and why underground if not to protect the plant from potential attacks by surrounding oil nations — whereby Gaddafi always described it as a giant irrigation plant, and the CIA as a giant chemical weapons production plant… though not lying, Gaddafi just didn’t tell the whole truth. And here’s the explanation: two or three years after project start, Mannesmann shipped huge quantities of giant cast steel tubes to Libya (8m in diameter!) — hence, simple maths show that beneath a floor carrying a double narrow-gage rail track, there’s enough space left in these tubes for an irrigation duct… these tubes being indispensable to hide the 60km logistics track between the port of Tripoli and the mountain site.

    Reagan, shortly before quitting, sent fighter planes from London to bomb Gaddafi’s headquarters, killing one of his adoptive daughters aged 4 — but later-on, Clinton, sensing an opportunity, sent Kofi Annan to negotiate with Gaddafi — probably with the intent to offer protection (by U.S. aircraft carriers) to the second and ultimate project stage, i.e. the covering of huge Libyan desert spaces with highly vulnerable PV panels (with likely as a counter-part a huge technology transfer towards a similar U.S. desert project).

    Seemingly, the Daimler-Chrysler merger was part of the project — only to witness, alas, Washington’s malicious intent to flout the German automobile flagship, since the merger was dissolved five years later with a net loss of DM30B for Daimler-Benz… But this was not the only deception in the game: Washington had the Dutch Shell company build the then biggest PV panel production plant in Europe — but the premises were left almost empty during a decade, when it became clear that once again the Germans got tricked out of the deal. BTW, you may now also know why Germany is currently taking revenge in the PV sector…

    Although not directly concerned by solar energy supply from the Libyan desert, the U.S.A. were fiercely determined to curb any attempt to mass-produce PV panels in the projected order of magnitude — presumably because they feared a dramatic price-drop for PV panels, leading to individual energy autonomy, i.e. independence from the energy network outlets at which the petroleum and nuclear lobbies keep us hostages.

    Anticipating a massive hydrogen supply from Libya, Daimer-Benz had set up from scratch a huge production site in Hambach (under the cover-up label of “Smartville”, after acquiring the Smart car from its inceptor Nicholas Hayek for $130M) in order to churn out the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel-cell car, i.e. the model A — which, alas, after having failed during the elk test because of its abnormally high center of gravity (two-story design to accommodate the passenger compartment above, and the drive train/power plant below a thorough floor), is still ICE-powered to date.

    Calgary is in Canada, a bi-cultural American-French country — so, could it be that the same “coalition of the unwilling” is again plotting against Germany to deter them from further hydrogen fuel-cell research with a vastly overstated break-through announcement?

  5. Sorry, KL- even with the potential breakthrough above, Hydrogen will not be in mass-produced cars anytime soon. Here is a good summation of the storage problem:

    I did not see the whole Science article, but I think even in that they talk about using Hydrogen for stationary applications, not motive ones (though in fairness, I did see the whole article, or may have read a different one).

    It is not just the cost of hydrogen generation- it is the cost of transporation (it takes more energy to push it thru those pipelines, it takes more trucks to deliver the same gasoline energy-equivalent to gas stations), the cost of utilizing that hydrogen, whether burning it directly or in use with as a fuel cell, and a cost in making it safe- it is light and escapes easily, is more explosive in air, and its flame is hard to see. And we haven’t even mentioned the cost of building out that delivery infrastructure, which the car companies have already said will have to come from the government.

    Car companies have poured Billions of dollars into hydrogen fuel cell research, some of which has come out of the public’s pockets thru government subsidies- they are virtually no closer after 30 years to making this a mass-producable option.

    Batteries are just getting started- and there are many, many options for energy storage in this way, including many options for Li-Ion alone, not to mention other elements used in traditional batteries, and, in the future, solid state batteries.

    A hydrogen fuel cell is a neat idea, and a great scientific acheivement- but it is not a commercially viable product, and may never be one. In the meantime, batteries are here now, usable with an already available infrastructure for delivery of fuel, and will get better and cheaper every year. EVs may flounder for now until their battery cost, range and longevity do improve greatly- but they are here, and can be used anywhere there is a plug.

  6. Curious why hydrogen(h2) would take more energy to push through a pipe than natural gas(ch4)? What journal article has info on this? I believe hydrogen has higher energy equivalent than batteries and is nearing gasoline? Pipelines are everywhere just as powerlines and most businesses are already connected with natural gas so we are really talking about the cost of a supercharger vs the cost of a hydrogen fuel pump. Hydrogen fills in moments vs at minimum half an hour for electric. Sounds like a pretty even competition other than total cost of the vehicle itself which these reseachers from calgary are solving.

  7. This research is for clean h2 production catalysts but might one day have an application for fuel cell production cost.

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