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Cars Rice U green hydrogen for fuel cell EVs

Published on April 17th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


More Good News For Fuel Cell EV Fans

April 17th, 2015 by  

We were just talking about using wind and solar energy to source “green” hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles earlier this week, and along comes two more bits of news to gladden the hearts of fuel cell EV early adopters. First up is Rice University with some new research that could make green hydrogen on the cheap, and then we’ll take a look at a new tidal energy project that hooks up with a hydrogen recovery system.

Rice U green hydrogen for fuel cell EVs

Green Hydrogen For Green Fuel Cell EVs

For those of you new to the hydrogen issue, it’s a doozy. Think natural gas fracking and you’re on the right track. In other words, hydrogen is so not a clean fuel. The advantage it has right now is zero emissions at the tailpipe, which is good but not nearly good enough for communities that host fracking and natural gas transmission operations.

We discussed the fracking/fuel cell EV issue in detail earlier this week, and to be fair, battery EVs face similar issues when they are charged from a coal or natural gas-dependent grid, but still end up much, much cleaner thanks to the efficiency of their overall systems.

Meanwhile, the future may not be so gloomy for hydrogen, and for that we thank you, taxpayers of the USA. A large-scale demo project for sourcing hydrogen from water is under way in California, under the auspices of SoCalGas with the support of the Energy Department. The system can be powered with wind or solar energy, which cuts natural gas out of the picture.

Cheap, Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell EVs

That brings us to the Rice hydrogen research.

With your sparkling green hydrogen in hand, you still have to think about the cost of tooling around in a fuel cell EV compared to other rides. Part of that cost has to do with the catalyst used to wrench hydrogen and oxygen apart.

The current catalyst of choice is based on platinum, which needless to say is quite pricey.

The Rice team came up with a thin film based on cobalt that could do the same job, and do it better, and cheaper, too. No, really — the material itself is cheaper, and the manufacturing process is inexpensive and scalable.

The image above shows a side view of cobalt phosphide/phosphate thin film, and if you want to know how thin, you can measure it from the scale bar of 500 nanometers, located at the lower right corner.

To ice the cake, instead of just recovering hydrogen, the same material also produces recoverable oxygen.

The team is part of the James Tour lab group at Rice, and if that rings a bell you may be thinking of the lab’s groundbreaking energy storage work based on graphene and its “cousin,” molybdenum.

Speaking of US taxpayers, before we get on to that tidal energy thing, let’s pause here for a big group hug, because our friends over at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research supported the Rice team through its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. Didn’t know we had one of those, did you?


More Green Sources For Green Fuel Cell EVs

The Rice team envisions using wind and solar energy to go with their new low-cost hydrogen catalyst, which brings us right around to that tidal energy thing.

Our new best friends over at ITM Power tipped us to a tidal energy test site in Scotland that sports an integrated hydrogen system.

ITM will be providing the hydrogen end of things, which is based on the a polymer electrolyte membrane.

The idea is to store excess energy from the tidal turbines in the form of hydrogen, so an on-site fuel cell is included in the ITM package.

But wait, there’s more. Excess hydrogen is also anticipated from the project, and that will be shipped off site to another energy storage system, helping to boost the reliability of power supplied by a local community wind turbine.

A Brighter Future For Fuel Cell EVs

Fuel cell EVs have taken their share of lumps over here at CleanTechnica and our sister site Gas2.org, but we would also like to point out that way back in the early days of auto manufacturing, battery electric vehicles were the way to go.

Something happened along the way — gasoline and diesel leapfrogged over electricity — and it has taken battery electric vehicles around 100 years — yes, 100 years — to even begin to catch up.

We’re not saying that battery EVs are heading for another 100-year fall, just that fuel cell EV technology should not be counted out after a mere 30 or so years of trying.

Add hydrogen produced with tidal energy to solar and wind, and then consider a drop in the cost of fuel cells, and it seems that things are moving along at a nice clip on the hydrogen front, at least as far as stationary fuel cells go.

Mobile fuel cells — aka fuel cell EVs — are a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but it seems to us that all of this hydrogen activity is going to trickle down to the personal mobility market, sooner or later.

However, aside from cost and cleanliness, they still have a lot of big hurdles to overcome. But perhaps one day in the sparkling green future the personal mobility market will accommodate both.

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Photo Credit: Tour Group/Rice University

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Julian Cox

    The article stopped before the crux of the matter. Economics cannot be substituted for the word “can”. Will it demolish natural gas SMR in open economic competition at scale – thereby reassuring the public that it WILL put the current crop of hydrogen lobbyists from the Natural Gas industry out of business?

  • dogphlap dogphlap

    The link to Rice University re: the new cheap catalyst has me intrigued. The way it reads to me is that while not as good as platinum it is much cheaper so a step forward in commercial electrolysis. What I don’t understand is the implication that previous methods liberated H2 but not O2 while this new technique liberates both by simply reversing the applied voltage (they are using AC). How was it ever possible to liberate H2 without simultaneously also liberating O2 ? Was the oxygen left bound to something else (but what else) ? Could someone with better chemistry knowledge than I please explain what the good people at Rice are getting at here.

  • dogphlap dogphlap

    While I have little hope for H2 as a fuel for electric vehicles (if you don’t like the word fuel in this context substitute energy storage mechanism) it has an outside chance. I’d like to see the present California mandate of at least 30% to come from renewable resources increased to 100% by 2018 and the Californian public’s funding of H2 distribution to be cut from $250M over the next decade to zero now. It is big oil that wants a hydrogen economy, they have the money, let them pay for it.

    • Jon Lyall

      I guess you mean that big oil wants hydrogen because it is derived primarily from natural gas? Of course electricity is derived primarily from fossil fuels too. Both have the potential to be derived from renewable sources, and this should be encouraged. If hydrogen FC transport has lower CO2 emissions than petrol, it is already a step forward. If the percentage of renewable h2 is increased gradually, new technologies like the one mentioned here will have a market to develop in, and see their price fall, until they are in a position to replace natural gas entirely. This is the same strategy currently used will electricity generation.

  • Joe Viocoe

    This may be exciting… but still only in the laboratory stage.

    Throw this in with the others…. one of thousands of “promising new advancements” which may never see the light of day.

    So the question becomes…

    Could this somehow be commercialized at a faster pace than the dozen or so battery advancements like Solid State Batteries, Metal Air, etc….??

    There are a number of “promising new advancements” in battery technology that will utterly ruin Hydrogen’s chance to capitalize on their single advantage (fast refueling).

    • Bob_Wallace

      I would imaging that all labs and manufacturers are working overtime to get their ideas to market. There’s a huge amount of profit to be made and ones “Outstanding idea” might only be the best for a limited time.

  • Julie Rosenthal

    Thank you for this interesting and inspiring news article.

  • Kyle Field

    I believe some rebranding or clarification is in order. I’m not a FCEV fan…I’m a fan of renewable transportation and FCEVs just happen to be one of a few promising technologies in that area 😀

    • Michael G

      Thanks. RE is growing fast but from such a small base it hardly registers. Like everyone else I hope and expect it will take over but that is still more speculation based on trend lines than reality. Anything with a good shot at getting us off of fossil fuels deserves support.

  • Matt

    While this might come along, I think we are still too soon to be building out FuelCell EVs fill stations. Will one day you have one in you home to provide heat and electric in the winter, maybe. But right now it is still a research topic, not a transportation option. Based on current production, my WAG (wild ass guess) is their life time emissions are as higher or higher that ICE. Since their is already a commercial market for O2 and H2 the above process can move forward to support that market.

    • Babam

      Yes if you build the Hydrogen Fueling Stations, the fossil fuel industry would leapfrog everyone into supplying it and they will lobby hard to stop or slow down green hydrogen. They should not be built yet until after green hydrogen reaches critical mass.

      • Jon Lyall

        I think.the solution there is state or countrywide mandates, to gradually increase the % of “green” hydrogen.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Hydrogen is already expensive (according to Toyota, 17 cents per mile). Green hydrogen is even more expensive.

          Let’s assume you could build a H2 FCEV and sell it for the same price as a same-model ICEV. And assume that ICEV got 35 miles per gallon. With $3/gallon gasoline the ICEV would cost about 9 cents per mile.

          How do you get buyers to pick the 2018 Toyota Camry FC over the 2018 Toyota Camry ICE when the fuel cell version would cost about twice as much to drive? 17 cents per 9 cents per mile.

          Throw in the lower range of FCEVs (compared to ICEVs) and the difficulty of finding filling stations and where’s the market?

          Now add in requiring a higher ratio of green H2 at the pump. The 17 cents per mile goes up.

          • EricR

            Hey Bob, good to see you again. To your point, I ran the numbers about 5 years ago to see at what point hydrogen would be cost competitive with gasoline and I found that gasoline would have to be around $4.19/gallon. Not unrealistic (especially if compared to vehicles requiring premium gasoline) but not competitive with today’s gas prices. But an advantage of gasoline is that it benefits greatly with economies of scale (the more cars there are, the cheaper hydrogen will be).

          • Bob_Wallace

            What parameters did you use?

            Cost of hydrogen? Reformed methane or green hydrogen?

            MPG of the ICEV?

            Miles per kg for the FCEV?

          • EricR

            I used a DOE white paper for the assumptions. A demand of 1 kg/day/vehicle. I’d have to dig up the value for the cost of delivered H2. I recall that I did not factor in taxes, but I did provide margin for the station ROI.

    • Michael G

      CA has allocated $250M total for fuel cell support but that is spread over 10 years so we’re looking at $25M/year. CA’s 2014 state budget is $164B. So not a lot of money – especially compared to the billions of $ Toyota and Honda are spending.

      FCs are not just a research topic. Walmart has a Canadian distribution center which powers their 95 large FC forklifts (6-ton) by H2 from hydrolysis. Saves about $1.1M over lead-acid batteries over 7 years. They also ordered 2,000 more for their US operations. Case study here:


      I’m not as optimistic as Toyota and Honda about FCVs being ready now, but I have to allow that they may know more about it than I do.

      It will be extraordinarily difficult to keep the global temp rise below 2 deg. C. The small cost is worth a try. On keeping below 2 deg. C rise: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/9/5883835/a-step-by-step-guide-to-avoiding-drastic-global-warming

  • Calamity_Jean

    In the section headed “Cheap, Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell EVs”, this sentence appears:

    “To ice the cake, instead of just recovering oxygen, the same material also produces recoverable oxygen. “

    Should the first “oxygen” be “hydrogen” instead?

  • JamesWimberley

    Renewable hydrogen is important and the research deserves public support and media coverage. Just not for cars. Hydrogen will go into methane for industry and heating, and synfuels for aviation, shipping and trucks. Even into hybrid cars for American Westerners with legitimate range anxiety (any evidence they are more than 1% of the population?)

    • Ronald Brakels

      At an electricity cost of just one US cent a kilowatt-hour the electricity cost of producing one gigajoule of hydrogen with 75% efficiency is going to be $3.70 US. That’s significantly more than the average cost of a gigjoule of natural gas in Australia, so replacing methane with hydrogen is going to be a tough sell without very major drops in electricity prices. Carbon prices could certainly help, but it could still end up cheaper to burn/use natural gas and pay to remove and sequester the CO2 released into the atmosphere. With every natural gas importing nation expanding its renewable capacity, my guess is natural gas prices are going to take a beating. That is, an additional beating to the one they took with the fall in oil prices. Now my brain may be warped from living in Australia where natural gas use is dying for three reasons: prices rising to international parity, efficiency and rooftop solar displacing domestic gas use, and Tony Abbott getting behind coal and thrusting hard to push it into prominance, but lower natural gas prices in the future are what I expect.

      • JamesWimberley

        I wouldn’t be too quick to rule out 1c electricity. A 100% renewables scenario may well involve a massive overbuild of wind and solar, which will still be profitable at 60% of the available capacity at the sort of system prices we can see on the horizon. The remaining output will be curtailed – or given away to users who can accept part-time supply. This isn’t the only possibility of course, and we may get a large-scale storage instead.

        I agree that a replacement of NG by synthetic methane will also need an assist from a carbon price. But there won’t be much a fossil fuel lobby by then to stop it.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I’ll rule out 1c electricity. EVs and storage will likely eliminate all need to curtail.

          Inexpensive storage will certainly cut the need for massive overbuilding.

          • juxx0r

            I’m going to rule it back in for you Bob.

            “A major new study from a leading German think tank and renewable energy specialist says the cost reduction potential of large scale solar is still misunderstood, and predicts that solar PV will be the cheapest form of power within a decade, and cost less than $US0.02/kWh by 2050.”

            from here:


            So if it currently costs 12c/kWh and there’s no feed in tariff we give it away for nothing, in the future where it only costs 2c/kWh, we’ll still give it away for nothing. 1c is better than nothing, and barely worth the effort to store it. And even if you did try and store it in batteries, you’d be producing excess because it costs nothing to produce.

          • Bob_Wallace

            In the real world there are costs in addition to the price of solar panels. Fixed operating costs for utility solar is not a penny, but is enough to make it hard to hit 1 cent for solar. There are issues such as real estate and transmission which are not included in LCOE calculations.
            And there’s the issue of who owns the solar. Are you envisioning a hydrogen plant owning utility solar, selling the power off to the grid when the price is up and then producing H2 when grid prices are down?

            I can see the 2c to 4c range but I’m going to stay skeptical on getting under 2c.

            Finally, this wish-guessing that is so common among hydrogen and sync fuels, the part that involves using “almost free surplus electricity” simply ignores the economics of leaving a plant sitting idle for large stretches of time, waiting for cheap electricity to appear.

            If you idea does not work using average industrial electricity rates then you are likely to fail. Currently industrial electricity is selling for $0.0694 in the US. Don’t expect much lower rates for a decade or more and then not a plunge to 2c, 3c.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Bob, I think US industrial electricity rates will definitely fall this decade thanks to expanding wind and rooftop solar capacity. It’s basically unavoidable. But yeah, I wouldn’t hold out for a drop to two or three cents.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I don’t think rates have dropped so far in Texas (10% wind) or California (5% solar). I wonder if prices are down in Iowa (>25% wind)?

            Prices are likely to come down. How far and how fast is hard to guess. If we’re replacing 5c nuclear might make some difference. The big drop could come from reducing NG peakers.

            We may not see a big drop until the first significant chunk of PPAs are paid out and those paid off generators bring some 2c power to the market.
            But however low the price of wind and solar there’s still some profit that will need to be paid to the owners and some transmission/distribution costs.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Well, I should have written that prices will drop in relation to what they would have been. Details will interfere and I am not knowlegable about the details. But all else equal, increasing wind and solar capacity will push down prices. However, there are limits because in places where markets for wholesale electricity exist, generators still have an incentive to charge as much as they possibly can, while if prices drop too low people will stop building wind and utility scale solar. Here in South Australia generating electricity from wind and rooftop solar equal to 40% of total consumption has caused wholesale electricity prices to fall to a level comparable to states with cheap convenient deposits of coal (an average of under 3 US cents a kilowatt-hour), but not plummet. (Mainly it is our large oversupply of fossil fuel generating capacity that is responsible for our current low wholesale electricity prices.)

          • Bob_Wallace

            I think we’re saying the same thing down to ” Here in South Australia “. I got no inside info on down there….

          • Ronald Brakels

            You got me…

          • Ronald Brakels

            Anyway, I didn’t mention my important point, which is that whenever the portion of fuelless generating capacity in a grid increases, and there is some type of market mechanism in place, then the fuelless generators, such as wind and solar, will tend to push the wholesale price of electricity down on account of how they can always underbid the generators who rely on fuel. For example, at the moment in America it costs about 3 cents worth of natural gas for a simple cycle gas tubine to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity, wind and solar can bid less because they have no fuel cost.

          • Bob_Wallace

            At times. But wind isn’t paying for itself and making a profit for its owners at those prices. Unless money is being made, overall, people won’t build wind farms and install solar panels.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Yep. That’s why there will be a fall in prices but not a huge drop.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Juxxor, rooftop solar has a lot of potential to lower electricity prices during the day since as the cost of solar drops people have an incentive to install larger systems to minimise the amount of grid electricity they use and this would resut in a lot of electricty being exported to the grid. But this cheap electricity will directly substitute for a lot of the things we currently use natural gas for. People will heat water and homes with electricity and the price drops low enough it will be used for process heat by industry. So the low electricity prices required to produce low cost hydrogen also remove a lot of the demand for hydrogen. And then there might be better uses for cheap electricity other than producing hydrogen. So while I’m not saying cheap electricity won’t be used to produce hydrogen, I am saying there would still be obstacles even with cheap electricity.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Cheap electricity for extended periods of time is a definite possibility. Indeed, very likely. But that cheap electricity will lower the demand for gas, which can to drop methane prices. A gigajoule of methane will produce about 50 kilograms of CO2 when burned. If it costs $100 a tonne to remove and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere then we are looking at about $5 to make a gigajoule of methane carbon neutral. If the methane itself is $2 a gigajoule then that comes to $7 a gigajoule which may compare favorably to hydrogen produced with 1 cent electricity as there will be capital costs involved as well as the $3.70 cost of electricity. But if only 1% of the methane from well to final use leaks, the cost of methane shoots up to about $8.25 a gigajoule and improves things for hydrogen. A 1% leakage rate may seem very low compared to the current rate of maybe 3%, but sending gas to individual homes seems like something we’re unlikely to do in the future (we appear to be giving up on it in Australia) and that is where a lot of leakage occurs, and if we started charging leaking methane at the rate of $100 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, all those leaks and losses that the natural gas industry claims it is impossible to do anything about would suddenly start magically disappearing.

    • Michael G

      H2 will go into methane for industry and heating but not into fuel cells? Why is that? It is already used in batteries and niche markets like large (6-ton) fork-lifts. Privately run H2 fuel stations are spread around – map here:

      Revenue is growing well, albeit from a small base. Costs are declining. Chart from http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/11/f19/fcto_2013_market_report.pdf

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