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Tina Casey headshot

"Tiny Bird" Hydrogen Fuel Cell Firm Nails Big BIRD Grant

By Tina Casey

The hydrogen economy just got another nudge forward last week, from a little known Energy Department program called BIRD Energy. That's short for Binational Industrial Research and Development, an initiative that has funded partnerships between U.S. and Israeli innovators since 2009. The latest round of BIRD Energy funding included five grants, one of which went to Parajito Powder, an Arizona company that makes low cost catalyst systems for hydrogen fuel cells.

Better and cheaper hydrogen fuel cells

Not too long ago, skepticism dominated the idea of an economy powered by fuel cells, running on zero-emission hydrogen fuel.

Part of the problem is that hydrogen is still sourced mainly from natural gas. That is beginning to change. Renewable sources are emerging, including biomass and water, which can be "split" by an electrochemical reaction. That energy can come from any renewable source, including solar power, wind power, or tidal power.

The other part of the problem is cost. Fuel cells don't burn fuel like an internal combustion engine. They generate electricity by a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. That reaction requires a catalyst.

This schematic shows the complexity of fuel cell systems, as incoming hydrogen (left side) reacts with incoming oxygen (right side). The only byproduct is water (right side):

Each component of the system provides an opportunity for improving efficiency and cutting costs, especially regarding the catalyst.

Platinum has long been the gold standard for fuel cell catalysts, which is where the whole thing runs into trouble. Platinum is expensive, and the supply chain is vulnerable to price swings on the global commodities market.


Arizona meets Israel

Research teams around the globe have been hammering away at the precious metals problem, and that's where Parajito Powder comes in (coincidentally, parajito is Spanish for "little bird"). The company has been developing a holistic, bottom-up approach to designing catalytic systems.

Its products, called Engineered Carbon Supports, are designed to provide for high efficiency hydrogen fuel cells with a lower platinum load.

Typically, lower levels of platinum undermine the durability of a catalyst. Parajito has apparently solved that problem. Here's the rundown from the company:

Pajarito Powder’s ECS products provide vastly improved carbon corrosion resistance, are inexpensive to produce and can be readily scaled for high-volume manufacturing, all conditions ultimately necessary for cost-effective, widespread fuel cell adoption.

In addition, Parajito foresees that its engineered approach forges a pathway for doing away with platinum altogether.

The BIRD Energy funding will pair Parajito with Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, with the goal of pushing down the cost of catalysts even further.

That partnership will avail Parajito of the expertise at the school's Grand Technion Energy Program, which hosts the Hydrogen Technologies Research Laboratory.

The global hydrogen economy collaboration

As for why not simply hook Parajito up with resources here in the U.S., the BIRD Energy funding stream is designed specifically to forge global energy alliances beyond the conventional petrodollar matrix.

BIRD Energy kicked into gear under the Obama Administration but it was authorized under the Bush Administration in 2009, as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Hydrogen has the potential to be the prime hub in the energy independence wheel, and not only for the U.S. economy. Renewable energy, biomass and water are resources available to almost every country, so hydrogen provides the potential for unchaining the global economy from reliance on a relatively small number of petroleum-exporting nations.

Since 2009, BIRD Energy has funded 32 projects with a total investment of $26 million.

Along with Parajito Powder, the other U.S. companies included in the new round of funding are Dynamis Solutions of Nevada, pairing with BrightSource Industries on a concentrating solar project; POET Research of South Dakota pairing with CelDezyner on next-generation biofuel, and Yarotek PR of Florida pairing with Solview Systems on a rooftop solar project.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University also received funding for an energy efficiency project with the Israeli company Waves Audio.

Trump or no Trump...

Clean tech observers have been on edge about the future of U.S. energy policy under the incoming President Trump. Based on his campaign pledges, the future of Energy Department funding for clean tech projects does look pretty gloomy.

However, the clean energy transition has achieved critical mass globally. Regardless of the direction the Trump Administration decides for the Energy Department -- including whether or not the agency will exist at all -- clean tech R&D will continue apace elsewhere.

More importantly, the BIRD program illustrates the risks a Trump Administration would run by making wholesale cuts to Energy Department programs.

The Energy Department funds major research facilities and public-private partnerships all across the country, regardless of whether a state is red or blue.

Local business stakeholders are not likely to sit quietly by if those programs are cut, regardless of their political affiliation. The same goes for their representatives in government.

In deep red Oklahoma, for example, Republican Governor Mary Fallin recently went out of her way to praise the planned Plains & Eastern wind transmission project. The new line will bring power from Oklahoma wind farms to points east, with an assist from the Energy Department. Take that federal support away, and the project faces years of delay if not outright extinction.

Another key factor to consider is the global nature of energy research. The Energy Department funds research collaborations in countries all over the world. Disentangling those commitments is not going to be easy, especially with important allies like Israel.

BIRD Energy is just part of a broader, "robust" U.S.-Israel collaboration called the U.S Israel Energy Dialogue. Last spring, that collaboration was further cemented by the signing of an amendment to the Energy Agreement between the two countries.

The amendment pledges an expansion of collaborative clean energy efforts between the U.S. and Israel.

It's also worth noting that BIRD Energy comes under the umbrella of the BIRD Foundation, an initiative that dates back to 1977 with the mission of fostering U.S.-Israel technology collaboration.

Among the powerhouse U.S. companies to benefit from the program since 1977 are GE, IBM and P&G.

Stay tuned.

Images: photo via Parajio Powder; schematic via Parajito Powder.





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