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Tina Casey headshot

Renewable Hydrogen Now On the Circular Economy Menu

By Tina Casey

Researchers around the globe are looking into food waste as a renewable source for zero-emission hydrogen fuel. And a new circular economy pilot project here in the U.S. could help ramp things up a notch or two. The project boasts A-list participants including Target, Walgreens and the Walmart Foundation.

To be clear, the project is not focused on hydrogen. The idea is to choose a city and surrounding region -- yet to be named -- that have already established some promising programs, and leverage those assets to accelerate the transition to a circular economy overall.

But that does open up some intriguing possibilities for renewable hydrogen ...

The circular economy, coming soon to a city near you.

The new circular economy initiative was formally announced earlier this month under the title, “Beyond 34: Recycling and Recovery for A New Economy.”

The figure 34 comes from a 34 percent recycling rate, upon which the U.S. appears to stuck.

The leading partner in the project is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. That's the Chamber Foundation, not the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce is not exactly known as a promoter of sustainable commerce, but the Chamber Foundation has more than a few surprises up its sleeve.

Among them is a strong focus on transitioning to a circular economy. This focus began in earnest just a few years ago and has already built up a head of steam. The Chamber Foundation addresses the looming crisis for companies from the perspective of economic survival:

"If we continue with the business-as-usual approach, companies and society will witness a probable surge in price volatility, inflation of key commodities, and an overall decline and in some cases depletion of critical material inputs."

Along with the Chamber Foundation, Target, Walgreens and the Walmart Foundation, Republic Services and Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) also signed on as initial partners in Beyond 34.

The program is also expect to engage local stakeholders.

Here's the money quote:

“The circular economy is a huge opportunity for the business community and for the American economy,” said Marc DeCourcey, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “‘Beyond 34’ will help accelerate recycling and recovery solutions that enhance business performance, competitiveness, and innovation while stimulating sustainable economic growth and development at the local level.”

The Chamber Foundation makes a good case that, beyond a simple matter of economic survival, the circular economy is the key to a new age of economic growth:
"In a circular economy, products, components, and materials are designed and manufactured for reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling. Shifting to the circular economy could unlock an estimated $4.5 trillion in additional economic growth by 2030, according to research from Accenture, and could be the biggest economic revolution in 250 years."

"Economic revolution" -- them's fighting words!

Who will be the lucky city?

The Chamber Foundation expects to identify the city and surrounding region soon, and start phasing in the project by this January.

Place your bets now in the comment thread, but it seems that one lucky city is in the running.

Our friends over at Environmental Leader got a sneak peek at the Beyond 34 concept from the Chamber Foundation. Based on their reporting, it looks like the cities of Phoenix and Chandler, Arizona, exemplify the kind of test bed that fits the bill.

A strong corporate commitment to the circular economy seems helpful. Chandler, for example, hosts the second-largest Intel campus in the U.S.  In 1996, the company partnered with the city to deploy a reverse osmosis wastewater treatment facility to serve its 11,000 employees. The treated water is sent back to the local aquifer to recharge groundwater supplies.

An academic partner is also a plus. Environmental Leader reports that Arizona State University has partnered with Phoenix to launch the Resource Innovation Campus for "developing emerging products and technologies from the city’s waste resources."

The hydrogen angle

"Developing emerging products and technologies from the city’s waste resources" sure sounds like something that would fit in with Arizona State University's renewable hydrogen initiatives. The school now runs renewable hydrogen programs through its Center for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production.

In 2007, ASU's Biodesign Institute launched a five-year, $2.5 million initiative to produce renewable hydrogen using a microbial process. Cyanobacteria and other tiny microbes naturally produce tiny amounts of hydrogen. The research is aimed at ramping that process up. Waste biomass from the initial process could also be reclaimed for additional hydrogen production.

As for whether or not renewable hydrogen research continues to get funded under the Trump administration, it's worth noting that the Energy Department's interest in renewable hydrogen remained consistent regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican occupied the White House.

ASU's Biodesign Institute, for example, launched during President George W. Bush's first term with this observation about biomass-to-energy and microbial systems:

"We need to change our point of view concerning what society now treats as wastes. ... To make society more sustainable, we need to capture these valuable resources, and microbial systems often are the best way.”

Even earlier in the Bush administration -- back in 2002 -- the National Renewable Energy Laboratory came up with a study indicating that the "growing concern about global climate change" would prompt the development of renewable hydrogen.

When ASU announced its five-year hydrogen program in 2007, it also launched a $1.5 million program aimed at renewable hydrogen from water-splitting. That initiative, as described by ASU, was part of a round of Energy Department funding "in support of President George W. Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative."

Don't hold your breath for President Donald J. Trump's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, but stay tuned for more news as Beyond 34 starts to phase in.

No matter who holds the Oval Office, the circular economy is here to stay.

Image: via Arizona State University.




Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey