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U.S. Ups the Ante on Renewable Hydrogen Production


When it comes to the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future, the U.S. isn't letting any grass grow under its feet. The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory now plans to lead a collaborative effort to accelerate the development of renewable hydrogen.

A total of six national laboratories, dubbed the HydroGEN Advanced Water Splitting Materials Consortium, will work together on faster, cheaper and more efficient ways to recover hydrogen from water. The end goal is to power fuel cells for electric vehicles and other zero-emission applications.

Public-private partnerships for sustainable hydrogen

Earlier this year, the Energy Department introduced the concept for a hydrogen-powered pathway to the "deep decarbonization" of the domestic economy. The new consortium takes it to the next level by making more public resources available to private-sector stakeholders.

NREL described the consortium in a press release issued earlier this week. The idea is to ramp up the development of the new commercial water-splitting techniques that are emerging in the nation's laboratories.

The list includes advanced electrolysis, photoelectrochemical processes, and solar thermochemical processes.

That shortlist is highly selective for a reason. Each of those technologies can be powered by solar and/or wind energy, and that is the key to sustainable hydrogen production. Without these clean, renewable resources, hydrogen is stuck in the fossil fuel track.

The new director of the consortium is Dr. Huyen N. Dinh of the NREL Chemistry and Nanoscience Center. Dr. Dinh had this to say about the need for public resources to step in:

"HydroGEN brings together capabilities that can only be found in the national lab system and makes them easily available to material developers in academia and industry. Our research strategy integrates computational tools and modeling, material synthesis, process and manufacturing scale-up, characterization, system integration, data management, and analysis to accelerate advanced water splitting material development."

More group hugs for U.S. taxpayers

The taxpaying public can also take credit for a broader Obama administration initiative that makes the national laboratories' resources available to the business community, with the goal of accelerating the transition to hydrogen.

That initiative was introduced earlier this year as the Energy Materials Network. Part of its mission is to develop the sophisticated new  materials that are needed to provide catalysts for water-splitting.

As part of that network, HydroGEN will work in these areas:

  • Making novel national lab capabilities, expertise, techniques, and equipment relevant to advanced water-splitting materials more accessible to external stakeholders, including researchers in industry, academia, and other laboratories.

  • Establishing robust online data portals that capture and share the results of non-proprietary research.

  • Facilitating collaboration between researchers working on the three water-splitting pathways and addressing common materials challenges and resource needs, such as high-throughput synthesis techniques and auxiliary component design.

That's just the tip of the advanced materials iceberg. Along with HydroGEN, the Energy Department established a whole raft of other research consortia aimed at pushing the hydrogen economy envelope.

The areas of focus include hydrogen storage, solar conversion efficiency and biomass conversion (biomass is another pathway for renewable hydrogen) among others.

Who's gonna pay for all this?

The HydroGEN initiative is designed to operate with about $10 million per year. The money will go to upgrading labs and providing new grant opportunities for innovators outside of the laboratory system. And the ripple effects could pump billions into the national economy.

For a real-life demonstration of the impact public investments can have in foundational energy research, just take a look at past history. The wind and solar industries are accelerating rapidly, thanks to foundational research and financial backing for commercializing new technologies.

On the other hand, the $10 million is "subject to appropriations," according to the Energy Department. That means the future of HydroGEN is not assured, at least not until after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, like many who hold leadership positions in that party, is not a fan of renewable energy. It's a safe bet that entire research areas would be sloughed off under his administration.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, in contrast, is poised to pick up where the Obama administration left off, with a slew of vigorous initiatives for decarbonizing the economy.

Based on the recent flurry of activity in the Energy Department, it looks like President Obama hopes renewable hydrogen will feature front and center in a Clinton administration.

Image: via U.S. Department of Energy.













Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

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. 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.

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