Latest Hydrogen Breakthrough Trips Up Trump’s Coal Promise


President-elect Donald Trump ran his campaign on the unlikely promise of bringing coal jobs back to the U.S. Fulfilling that promise is growing unlikelier by the day.

In the latest development, a multinational research team has unlocked one of the mysteries behind plants’ natural ability to “split” water. The discovery provides foundational support for efforts to produce renewable hydrogen fuel with low cost, high efficiency water-splitting systems.

Renewable hydrogen from water

The march toward renewable hydrogen is progressing along several different fronts, aided by solar power as well as biomass, wind power and tidal power. That technology is already beginning to ease into the marketplace.

In Europe, for example, rail transport company Alstom introduced a fuel cell train that appears to leverage a recently formed relationship with the sustainable hydrogen company Hydrogenics.

Fuel cell electric vehicles have been slow to hit the open road here in the U.S. But hydrogen fuel cells are rumbling into niche markets, such as in the logistics industry and seaports.

This growing market makes it imperative to transition out of the primary source for hydrogen — natural gas — and into more sustainable alternatives.

The new breakthrough could help accelerate that trend by providing a helpful course-correction for renewable hydrogen research.

The Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spearheaded the project. It provides the first atomic-scale visualization of the protein complex that plants deploy during photosynthesis.

Named photsystem II, this protein is the nexus where energy from sunlight splits water to create oxygen along with protons and electrons — useful bits of energy that are later used to transform carbon dioxide into solid plant material.

How important is this breakthrough? Co-principal investigator Vittal Yachandra offers this take:

“We have been trying for decades to understand how plants split water into oxygen, protons and electrons. Understanding how nature accomplishes this difficult reaction so easily is important for developing a cost-effective method for solar-based water-splitting, which is essential for artificial photosynthesis and renewable energy.”

Yachandra further explains that the new imagery may lead to the adjustment of some important assumptions researchers previously made about natural water-splitting. Until now, the leading theories indicated that water binds to specific sites in the photosystem II protein. That phenomenon was not revealed by the imagery.

Next steps for the team include deploying the process of elimination to gain a more accurate understanding of the actual mechanism at play.

Group hug for U.S. taxpayers

Eliminating the Department of Energy has become a favorite theme of Republican office-seekers. The theory seems to be that the private sector will pick up where taxpayer-funded projects leave off.

That may be true in some areas of research, but when you get down to the primary or financial level, market incentives practically evaporate. For example, the Internet as we know it today is the product of a Defense Department research program, for which each taxpaying member of the public can claim some credit. That kind of high-risk, high-reward investment requires a measure of time, human resources and dollars that are difficult if not impossible to assemble in the private sector.

The new Berkeley project is a good example: The team deployed publicly-owned equipment to create the new image.

“The images … provide the first high-resolution 3-D view of photosystem II in action, a feat accomplished by using unimaginably fast X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL) pulses from the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science User Facility.”

Got all that? Located at Stanford University, SLAC National Accelerator was credited with an Encyclopedia Brittanica’s worth of discoveries since it launched operations in the 1960s.

In short, LCLS does this:

“With X-ray pulses a billion times brighter than predecessor X-ray sources that last for just femtoseconds, or million-billionths of a second, LCLS can measure the properties ultrafast processes at the scale of atoms and molecules.”

This is only one of two facilities in the world where this kind of operation is possible, btw.

Another angle that would be difficult to engineer on private-sector dollars alone is the international cooperation that takes place at the level of foundational research. The Berkeley research team included representatives from Germany’s Humboldt University, Sweden’s Uppsala University and England’s Oxford University, as well as compatriots from Stanford University and the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

If President-elect Trump can use his powers of persuasion to get private dollars to fill in for this kind of operation, good luck.

Meanwhile, another XFEL is up and running in Europe, so at least hydrogen stakeholders have another place to go if Trump decides to pull the rug out from under hydrogen research in the U.S.

Image: by Johannes Mssinger via, “…structure of the oxygen evolving complex in photosystem II in a light-activated state. Water molecules are shown as blue spheres, the four manganese ions in purple, the calcium ion in green and the bridging oxygen ions in red. The blue mesh is the experimental electron density, and the blue sticks are the protein side chains holding the catalytic complex.”


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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

10 responses

  1. Tina Casey,

    I enjoy your articles, I’ve have added a few Hydrogen projects that are going on around the world that you and your followers might be interested in .

    About Don Quichote:
    Hydrogen production via renewable electricity utilisation is seen as a valuable business opportunity to efficiently use intermittent clean energy sources.

    By storing excess renewable electricity in large quantities in hydrogen, renewable energy can be effectively utilised for road transportation, grid balancing and other areas of application.

    In this way, the role of hydrogen as a storage medium could greatly enhance the deployment of renewable energy sources and contribute to the EU’s decarbonisation objectives. However, energy companies and renewable energy developers have yet to integrate hydrogen as a storage medium into their future planning.

    is a project that demonstrates the use of hydrogen in energy systems. The hydrogen will be produced from water electrolysis, enabling the storage of cheap renewable electricity from wind turbines. It will thus help balance the grid, and the green hydrogen will be used for clean transportation and in the industrial sector.

    BioCat Project:
    The overall objective of the BioCat Project is to design, engineer, construct and test a commercial-scale power-to-gas facility at a wastewater treatment plant in Denmark and demonstrate its capability to provide energy storage services to the Danish energy system.

    P2G is an innovative approach to energy storage. By converting electrical energy to chemical energy in the form of methane, the vast existing natural gas infrastructure can be leveraged for storage and transportation of renewable energy.

    Nikola Motor Company:
    Nikola is currently preparing the next generation of the Nikola One, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric semi-truck for production. Nikola’s hydrogen-powered electric semi-truck will have a range of 800 – 1,200 miles between fill-ups and achieve approximately 15-20 mpg with zero emissions under full load. This performance surpasses all government mandates in place for the next 10 years, including the EPA’s recently announced stringent Phase 2 greenhouse gas standards.


  2. I made a promise to myself to purchase a hydrogen fuel cell car when my Durango bit the dust, 10 years later, 200,000 miles and a rusted out body, still no new car for me. I’ll be dead and buried before this technology is ready for the multitudes.

  3. The article on the hydrogen breakthrough was very interesting. The specious tie-in to Trump and coal jobs just demonstrates the writers bias since the two are completely unrelated. If you are writing about science, leave your politics out of it. I don’t care about your about your political outlook. If you can’t separate the two, don’t write at all, since you are unqualified to do your job.

  4. So rather than an article about science projects we get ignorant political chatter? I think everyone should have a linear accelerator in their backyard to make their own experiments to reduce water to hydrogen and oxygen. You do know that we know how to make such conversions already don’t you? And whether or not they have a “breakthrough” remains to be seen by scientific study and not by stupid comments. Solar power is not practical except as a last resort. Or maybe you haven’t seen that virtually every solar company has gone bankrupt?

    PG&E has an installed based that would allow them to deliver almost 20% of their peak demand and there has never been a single year where they have had much more than 2% of their power coming from both wind and solar power. The ONLY reason that they have “renewable” energy is because it is a large tax write-off.

    The effects of using solar power to convert water to hydrogen and then convert hydrogen to fuel which would then be used in an internal combustion engine would strike any engineer as a rather indirect method of generating energy and one that is bound to be far less energy efficient than just using plain solar cells. Could this be used? Certainly – inner city travel using hydrogen fuel would certainly improve air pollution in high population areas. But pretending as if you are some sort of visionary when apparently you know nothing about energy conversion is out of line. And adding political comments to it makes you look even sillier.

  5. The technology and economics of Hydrogen have been well understood for decades, MANY decades. ExxonMobile did extensive research in the 1960s. The facts are as follows:

    1. Hydrogen is expensive to produce – with high cost energy. Solar and wind are so cheap that concern is no longer valid.

    2. Hydrogen makes a wonderful transportation fuel, it’s clean and has plenty of power.

    3. Hydrogen can only provide about 200 mile range in small vehicles.

    4. Hydrogen in over-the-road trucks works great, as they can easily store 400 miles of fuel.

    My prediction is as we replace truckers with computers over the next decade, the vehicles will be very swoopy and powered by Hydrogen that is generated at almost zero cost by filling stations with wind or solar and access to salt water.

  6. The problem with all this bio-fuel, solar, wind power is that none of them supply food for plant life. So if you listen to these nut cases you’re only supplying an end to your own existence.

  7. OK, we get it, you are a left wingnut extremist, trump hating liberal.
    Now, can you write an article with some facts in it or just political hit pieces? How much will hydrogen cost to produce with your magical, undefined process? Since hydrogen is a storage medium, not a fuel source, there is no advantage at this time to move to a hydrogen economy. There is no infrastructure in place to transport hydrogen, there is no cost effective method to produce, or store hydrogen. Have you calculated how many solar panels would be required to produce enough hydrogen to run all the cars in America or the world? This article gives no evidence that is any of the physical constraints of a hydrogen economy have changed, other that I hope….. Even Toyota is moving away from their hydrogen vehicle to more electric, battery vehicles knowing the challenges faced with hydrogen. Do some research before spouting your political rants.

  8. How negative. Trump is already being effective in the advancement of new energy technology, including hydrogen. Sometimes it takes a president to truly challenge people to do the right things. If a plan to use more coal, because the world needs more energy resources now, stimulates further research on alternative energy sources then the president has succeeded where past presidents have failed. And he is not even in office yet.

    How many years to do you think this GREAT “break-through” is going to take in order for 1) BE Affordable 2) To IMPLEMENT! Long AFTER TRUMP is GONE!!!!!

    Take a back seat to your green initiative, smoke a little more peace pipes, get marijuana bill approved, a few of the tax cuts, coal miners churning the caves, and then 4 years from now TRUMP kept his promises, this new invention is still too expensive, and we’re still waiting for it to get cheaper! Meanwhile, 8 years from NOW…Dems regain the Presidency, House, and Senate and totally screw with bringing back green energy, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank! Then you can have your “GROUP HUG!”

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