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Tina Casey headshot

American Companies Team Up to Fuel the Hydrogen Economy

By Tina Casey

Trump or no Trump, the U.S. Department of Energy is still cooking up new ways to get zero-emission, hydrogen-powered vehicles into the hands of ordinary motorists. On Jan. 19, just one day before Inauguration Day (aka the National Day of Patriotic Devotion), the Energy Department awarded a $1 million prize to the developers of a new, compact hydrogen fueling station called SimpleFuel.

The award is significant step in the zero-emission direction. The Energy Department is banking on both hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles to help wean the U.S. off of petroleum fuel. But few motorists will buy a hydrogen-powered car unless they have a place to fill 'er up. The $1 million in prize money will help get those new hydrogen fuel stations off the ground.

Hydrogen fuel stations everywhere

For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity through a reaction between hydrogen and air. The only emission is water.

Fuel cell electric vehicles basically produce their own electricity on the go, so they can be fueled up as quickly as a gasmobile. In contrast, battery EVs need to stop and recharge. Even a high-powered, quick-charge station can take far longer than a typical stop at a gas station.

The fast fill-up is a big advantage for fuel cells over battery EVs, but not necessarily a complete one. Battery EV charging stations can fit into a very small space, and some EVs can even be plugged straight into a household circuit.

Commercial hydrogen fuel stations, on the other hand, tend to be too large and bulky for general use.

To help spur companies to develop more compact fueling stations, in October 2015 the Energy Department launched the H2 Refuel H-Prize Competition for a small scale hydrogen fueling station.

Here's the how the agency describes the H2 competition:

"... The H2 Refuel H-Prize Competition challenged America's innovators to deploy an on-site hydrogen generation system, using electricity or natural gas, to fuel hydrogen vehicles, that can be used in homes, community centers, small businesses, or similar locations."

The simple solution

As illustrated by the rendering at the top of this article, the SimpleFuel station can fit into a standard fueling aisle at a typical gas station.

That means many existing gas stations could install fuel cell stations, making access more convenient for fuel cell EV owners.

The SimpleFuel team nailed down the big H2 prize by deploying a compact hydrogen station last year. Data collection was scheduled for July through October, and it appears the system passed with flying colors.

That's a good thing in terms of managing climate change, because the H2 prize provided contestants with the option of producing hydrogen from the conventional source, fossil natural gas. In the U.S., that would mean a heavy dose of fracking with all the attendant risks and impacts including greenhouse gas emissions.

The SimpleFuel team went with the other alternative, which is to produce hydrogen from water using an electrical current. If the electricity is sourced from wind or solar, that's icing on the sustainability cake.

The team -- a consortium made up of the companies Ivys Energy Solutions, hydrogen specialists McPhy Energy North America and global compression experts PDC Machines -- has also created a fueling station that can fit into a range of uses:

The initial SimpleFuel product line is designed to target several small-scale hydrogen dispensing markets, including home and local/distributed refueling of consumer FCEVs, refueling for fuel cell vehicle fleets, and industrial fuel cell vehicle refueling.

Here comes hydrogen, Trump or no Trump

President Donald Trump promised to support the fossil fuel industry during the campaign season, and so far he's been as good as his word.

With less than a week in office, the president has already signed executive orders that would restart two significant petroleum transportation projects, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In the meantime, Republicans in Congress are also following through on their pledge to cut funding from the Energy Department.

However, that won't necessarily put a crimp in the growth of the hydrogen fuel cell EV market. The American business community is already heavily invested in fuel cell technology, and so are key federal agencies including the Department of Defense.

In addition to startups, legacy companies such as GE and Ryder have been laying big plans for the hydrogen fuel cell EV market, and a non-federal funding network for R&D is already at hand.

The H2 prize, for example, is administered by something called the Hydrogen Education Foundation. This alternative fuel nonprofit organization was established in 2004 -- yes, during a Republican administration (that would be George W. Bush, for those of you keeping score at home).

In any case, if petroleum ever flows through the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, American motorists won't necessarily get the benefit of cheaper gas prices. Most if not all of that oil is destined for the export market.

Image (cropped): via ivysinc.com.

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