Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Rick Perry's Energy Dept. Still Wants Renewable Hydrogen for Fuel Cell EVs

By Tina Casey

Now that the Paris Agreement on climate change is in force, the pace of global investment in renewables is expected to ramp up. One factor that could help accelerate the trend is the emergence of new hydrogen production technology, in which solar, wind or other renewables are deployed to "split" water for fuel cell electric vehicles and energy storage.

Although President Trump has announced that the U.S. will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only three nations failing to join the Paris Agreement, the U.S. Department of Energy is still promoting renewables with great consistency. In the latest development, the agency has just announced a round of $15.8 in funding aimed at speeding up the entry of renewable hydrogen and fuel cell EVs into the mass market.

$15.8 million for new hydrogen technology

Fuel cell EV technology is beginning to take hold in the logistics and trucking sectors, but it is in need of some serious innovative breakthroughs in order to capture the hearts and minds of the motoring public.

The limited availability of hydrogen fueling stations is a significant but resolvable obstacle. A much more thorny issue is cost. Fuel cell EVs are still relatively expensive compared to their battery EV cousins, and they are far more costly than a typical gasoline-powered car.

The new round of funding focuses $15.8 million on 30 projects that will help bring down the cost of fuel cell light-duty vehicles. That includes the splashily colored passenger cars favored by businesses seeking a contemporary image.

Fuel cells produce electricity through a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The reaction requires a catalyst, and the current catalyst of choice is made with platinum and related metals. The high cost of platinum is one main factor keeping the cost of fuel cell EVs high, so four projects in the new round of funding are aimed at developing new low-cost catalysts that meet or beat platinum on efficiency.

Another group of four projects is aimed at developing new nano-engineered materials for onboard hydrogen storage. Currently, the typical fuel cell EV uses hydrogen as a gas stored under pressure in a tank or canister. The specialized materials needed for pressurized storage are expensive, so subbing in a cheaper solution will also help bring down the cost of fuel cell EVs.

A third group involves three projects that will come at the storage issue from another angle. The idea is to develop new carbon fiber materials that will slice the cost of hydrogen storage tanks approximately in half.

Let's hear it for renewable hydrogen

By far the largest group in the new round -- 19 in all -- goes to advanced technologies for producing hydrogen from water.

One main focus will be on electrolysis, in which an electrical current is applied to "split" water. The electricity could come from practically any renewable source.

Another area of interest is photoelectrochemical water splitting. This technology involves dipping a solar cell directly into water to produce an electrical current.

One interesting aspect of photoelectrochemical technology is the potential for affordable, small scale production in off grid communities.

These two areas of research are relatively advanced. The new round of funding pushes the envelope even further with a third pathway, thermochemical water splitting.

The thermochemical field deploys high heat from concentrating solar power plants to jumpstart a series of chemical reactions. The chemicals are recycled in a closed loop, so the system only consumes water, not additional chemicals.

Waste heat from nuclear reactors is also under consideration as a heat source for thermochemical water splitting.

Toward a sustainable fuel cell EV

The renewables angle is absolutely critical for the development of a sustainable fuel cell EV market, because the main source of hydrogen at the present time is natural gas.

So, it's encouraging to see the U.S. Department of Energy continue to pump dollars into advanced R&D that promotes sustainable hydrogen.

The agency's effort is particularly noteworthy because it undercuts the promotion of natural gas as a climate change solution by ExxonMobil and other powerful natural gas stakeholders. That message gained additional leverage in the Trump Administration when former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was tapped for Secretary of State.

The new round of funding also serves to demonstrate the value of the country's national laboratory network.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has become a vociferous champion of the national labs and of their work on sustainable energy, and the press release for the new round of funding emphasizes that the $15.8 million builds on the existing research network.

The 30 projects come under the Energy Materials Network, a group of national laboratory consortia organized last year during the Obama Administration.

The catalyst projects will leverage resources from the Electrocatalysis Consorium, the nanomaterials group falls within the Hydrogen Materials—Advanced Research Consortium, and the carbon fiber group will combine resources from the Energy Department's Vehicle Technologies Office and Advanced Manufacturing Office.

The water splitting projects come under the HydroGEN Consortium, which includes Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Savannah River National Laboratory.

The continued flow of research dollars is good news for companies looking for new ways to decarbonize and highlight their climate action steps.

In addition to using fuel cell vehicles as promotional tools, companies can look forward to installing a sleek, modular water splitting system and hydrogen fuel dispenser on site.

The system is currently under development by a private sector consortium called SimpleFuel with support from the Department of Energy and it is on a pathway to commercial development so stay tuned for that.

Photo: via U.S. Department of Energy.

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