No matter how much you try to convince them that fuel cell electric vehicles just won’t fly, the US Department of Energy still somehow clings to the belief that there is a fuel cell in your future. The agency has just announced the second phase of two new cutting-edge fuel cell projects, and it is pushing ahead with a $1 million competition for the best small-scale, on-site hydrogen generation and refueling system.
The competition is open to hydrogen systems that run on either natural gas or electricity, but considering the bad news piling onto natural gas fracking just this week — low birth weight babies and infant mortality on top of yet more earthquake problems — we’re pulling for electricity.
Two Cutting-Edge Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Production Projects
Before we get to the natural gas issue, let’s take a look at the two Department of Energy (DOE) fuel cell projects.
Both of the projects were awarded under SBIR, the agency’s small business funding program, and they both made it to the second phase of the process.
One of the awards goes to a Massachusetts company called Giner, Inc. Giner is tasked with developing a new membrane and electrode for what could be put to use in next-generation fuel cells and electrolyzers.
Here’s a rundown on the Giner fuel cell project from the Department of Energy last year, when it was in Phase I:
One selectee, Newton, Mass.-based Giner Inc., will use technology patented by Los Alamos National Laboratory along with the company’s well-established dimensionally-stabilized membrane technology and state-of-the-art catalyst materials to develop advanced, high-performance and durable polymer electrolyte membrane electrode assemblies for fuel cell and electrolysis applications. This work aims to increase the efficiency of hydrogen vehicles, reducing air pollution and carbon emissions.
Hop over to the company’s website and you’ll see that part of its focus is on reducing the cost of PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells by cutting down on the need for platinum:
PEM electrolyzers offer smaller, cleaner and more reliable systems than competing electrolysis systems. Alkaline electrolyzers have, until recently, been less expensive due to the high precious metal requirements of a PEM cell stack, but recently Giner has demonstrated long-lived PEM cells at just ¼ of previous platinum loads and is targeting a further 33% precious metal reduction. That will render platinum costs to minimal levels.
Giner is also working on something it calls a “developmental hydrogen generation method” that involves converting sulfuric acid to sulfur dioxide, which is then oxidized to produce hydrogen.
According to the company, a sulfuric acid system could require only 25% of the electrical power needed to run conventional water splitting systems.
The second award goes to the wide-ranging materials science company Tetramer Technologies of South Carolina, which has been working on water vapor membrane technology aimed at cutting fuel cell costs and boosting performance.
The foundational technology is also aimed at reducing air conditioning costs in warm states like South Carolina, by providing an energy-efficient way to remove excess moisture from the air.
Prizes Galore For Hydrogen Production
We first caught wind of the Energy Department’s $1 million H2 Refuel H-Prize competition when it launched last fall, when it was aimed at awarding developers of small-scale hydrogen refueling stations.
Judging by a DOE webinar on hydrogen storage held January 2013, the agency’s interest is in renewable energy. However, the H2 Refuel prize is open to hydrogen systems based on either natural gas or electricity. DOE is staging a webinar for participants today (June 25), so stay tuned for more updates.
As for the big picture, the DOE is looking to achieve hydrogen delivery (including dispense) for less than $4.00 per kilogram.
According to the DOE, in the present state of the hydrogen game, you can get to that target by producing hydrogen from natural gas on a large scale. However, the DOE has some changes in mind.
Look at the right-hand side of the infographic above, and you’ll see that the long road to sustainable hydrogen production should end up at solar energy and biomass conversion.
Biomass conversion with solar energy is the preferred route for small-scale hydrogen production plants. For large-scale, centralized hydrogen production plants, the DOE foresees a detour into coal gasification with carbon capture, but the end goal is a combination of solar-powered water splitting technologies including solar thermochemical hydrogen production (that’s the STCH in the infographic) and photoelectrochemical conversion (PEC).
More Bad News About Fracking
Considering the news about fracking this week, we’re guessing that the DOE will be even more inclined to give brownie points for sustainably produced hydrogen.
First, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh linked the density of fracked wells to and increased risk for low birth weight in Pennsylvania, then Rolling Stone followed up on a previous Newsweek story with a devastating tale of infant mortality in Utah’s Uinta Basin, and just yesterday comes word of a new spate of earthquakes linked to fracking in Oklahoma.
To top it off, just last week Stanford University released the results of a new study that links fracking — specifically, the disposal of fracking wastewater — to previous swarms of earthquakes in Oklahoma.
Image courtesy of US Department of Energy (screenshot).