Fans of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in the US got a pleasant surprise yesterday, when the Department of Energy announced that a company called Dioxide Materials is getting a slice of the agency’s new $125 million round of funding for “transformational” energy projects. Among its areas of expertise, Dioxide Materials is developing a low cost system that uses renewable energy to produce hydrogen fuel from water.
$2 Million For Clean Hydrogen
The new round of $125 million in funding for 41 clean energy projects comes through the Energy Department’s ARPA-E division, known to CleanTechnica readers for its work in the exploding diaper market and many other cutting edge energy adventures.
We’re zeroing in on the $2 million award to Dioxide Materials for a couple of reasons, mainly because we’re very interested in the emerging power-to-gas field (the gas being hydrogen gas), and partly because among all 41 awardees, the Energy Department highlighted only seven in its announcement, and Dioxide Materials is the one selected to lead off the agency’s press release.
The Energy Department announcement was specifically timed to support President Obama’s participation in the COP21 climate talks in Paris, so we’re thinking that by underscoring this new investment in power-to-gas, the Obama Administration is signaling its future commitment to the emerging hydrogen economy. While not a one-size-fits-all solution, power-to-gas is emerging as a key strategy for some nations, Switzerland being one example.
With that in mind, take a look at the introduction that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz gave to Dioxide Materials and the other six highlighted projects:
The ARPA-E projects selected today highlight how American ingenuity can spur innovation and generate a wide range of technology options to address our nation’s most pressing energy issues. As we look beyond COP21, the energy technologies the Department of Energy invests in today will provide the solutions needed to combat climate change and develop a global low-carbon economy in the future.
Group Hug For Renewable Hydrogen
Dioxide Materials is getting $2 million in funding for its project, so group hug for US taxpayers:
Dioxide Materials, Inc. will develop an alkaline water electrolyzer for an improved power-to-gas system, which is used to store energy in the hydrogen chemical bond. High conductivity membranes that can function under alkaline conditions could lead to a 10x lower electrolyzer stack cost because they allow higher current densities and enable systems that do not require platinum catalysts.
So, what does that mean? For those of you new to the renewable hydrogen topic, the idea is to produce hydrogen gas by “splitting” water through electrolysis, a process that deploys electricity to touch off a chemical reaction.
The process is energy intensive, but with the advent of low cost wind and solar energy it doesn’t have to be carbon-intensive.
The project is a riff on another system developed by Dioxide Materials. The company is already marketing a renewable energy-enabled electrolysis system for capturing waste carbon dioxide from industrial facilities and converting it to carbon monoxide, which can then be used to produce carbon-based fuels.
The company has patents pending in the US and elsewhere for its proprietary “catalyst mixture.” According to the company, this unique catalyst reduces the cost of producing the carbon monoxide “building blocks” by a factor of three.
If all this is starting to ring a bell or two, back in 2011 CleanTechnica noticed that Dioxide Materials was working with the University of Urbana Champaign to develop a liquid catalyst, with the aim of cutting the cost of reducing carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.
Transformational Energy Projects
If the renewable hydrogen plan works out, that would certainly count as transformational. The few fuel cell electric vehicles currently plying the US highways depend heavily on hydrogen sourced from fossil natural gas, so in terms of lifecycle emissions they’ve been compared unfavorably to their battery EV cousins.
Fueling up with renewable hydrogen would turn the tables, at least for the near future. Despite their well deserved points for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the tailpipe, in the US many grid-charged battery EVs still depend at least partly on natural gas as well as coal.
As for the other projects in the new round of ARPA-E funding, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of those in the coming weeks.
Among the seven highlighted in the press release are an “energy crop” system for ocean algae, a self-deploying hydrokinetic turbine, and a 50 megawatt wind turbine (yes, 50) with 200-meter ultra lightweight blades designed for offshore use.
Speaking of EVs, the complete list of new energy projects is a little thin when it comes to funding for cutting edge EV technology, we’re guessing because US automakers are already heavily engaged in that subject.
Among the slim pickings are two projects that focus on solid-state batteries, the next big thing after lithium-ion batteries. Here’s one that gets a little over $3 million in funding:
“Researchers at Corning Incorporated will develop roll-to-roll manufacturing techniques to produce thin ceramic electrolytes for solid-state batteries. Solid-state batteries offer higher energy density than conventional lithium-ion batteries, and avoid the use of flammable electrolytes.”
Fuel cell EVs also get a pair of projects, including this one funded at $2.8 million:
Pajarito Powder, LLC and its team will develop a reversible hydrogen electrode that would enable cost-effective hydrogen production and reversible fuel cells. The key to this technology is the replacement of precious metal catalysts with low overpotential base metal catalysts to dramatically lower the costs of electrolyzers and fuel cells.
Paris, Here We Come…With Snowballs!
It’s worth repeating that the new funding announcement has been carefully timed to support a strong outcome at the COP21 climate talks in Paris, with an eye to highlighting innovative US companies that could play a leadership role in the global clean energy marketplace.
Meanwhile, we hear that a certain US Senator is coming to Paris in support of the US portable ice chest industry (we assume Senator Inhofe will pack up his snowballs in a made-in-the-USA model), so good luck with that.
Image (screenshot): CO2 conversion via Dioxide Materials.