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Tina Casey headshot

Renewable Hydrogen Emerging As Decarbonization Option For Business

By Tina Casey

Corporate buyers have stepped in to keep the renewable energy transition moving along at a rapid clip here in the US. So far the interest hasn't strayed too far from wind turbines and solar panels, but two new developments suggest that a third option -- hydrogen -- could soon be in the running when businesses consider their clean power options.

Why hydrogen?

Hydrogen still gets short shrift as a pathway to decarbonization, and for good reason. Though hydrogen is a zero emission fuel, the natural gas angle loads it up with a pile of environmental baggage.

The impacts of fossil natural gas are well known all up and down the supply chain, but it's worth a quick review of the main problems:

Local air and water pollution issues linked to  natural gas drilling.

Earthquakes and other local impacts linked to the disposal of drilling waste.

 Climate change impacts linked to methane emissions from drilling, transportation and storage sites.

Fortunately, the emergence of low cost wind and solar energy has provided a low emission pathway for producing natural gas, by "splitting" water through a chemical reaction touched off by an electrical current.

Water-splitting has been around for a long time (water is partly hydrogen, as you may remember from science class), but it requires energy. Up until recently, that was an expensive, carbon intensive deal breaker.

A knowledge base for water-splitting with renewable energy has been building, so the biggest obstacle now is bringing the cost down to where it makes sense commercially.

As for why go through all that trouble to make hydrogen, well, it is an abundant, zero emission fuel that can be produced domestically in large quantities.

Hydrogen fuel cells can be refueled in a few minutes, like a gas tank. Though hydrogen vehicles have been slow to catch on for personal mobility, the quickness factor has won over fans in logistics and other commercial sectors that run on a tight clock.

To ice the cake, hydrogen acts as a storage and transportation system for wind and solar energy.

So, where's the hydrogen?

Renewable hydrogen fuel is not ubiquitous now, and that's partly because of the catalyst that drives the chemical reaction in water-splitting. You need the right balance between high efficiency and low cost, which means that conventional catalysts just won't do.

That's where the first of our two latest developments comes in. The company HyperSolar just announced an update on its new wireless, fully integrated solar water-splitting system, called GEN 1. The company is banking on GEN 1 to be its first commercial solar powered water-splitting device.

They've already taken care of the solar chore, which will be shouldered by off-the-shelf high efficiency solar cells. The challenge for HyperSolar is to get their proprietary catalyst to operate efficiently in alkaline conditions.

The company reports that in earlier iterations, the catalyst was one of the least stable components of the system. The latest round of tweaking was a significant improvement: the catalyst exceeded 870 hours of operation while the entire device suffered degradation only after 105+ hours.

That's still a far cry from the 1,000 hours of operation that HyperSolar estimates is needed to push the technology into commercialization, but the improvement enabled the team to pinpoint the source of the problem and identify a pathway for fixing it.

Somebody is not waiting around for that perfect catalyst!

By the time HyperSolar has fine-tuned its catalyst, the company should have plenty of takers. Corporate buyers may lean on fossil-sourced hydrogen for now, but they are in position to jump on the early opportunities to shift to renewable hydrogen.

The hydrogen economy is already sparking interest in the business world, including major players like Amazon, UPS and the startup Nikola.

Hydrogen policies in the EU as well as the UK, the US and Japan are also helping to push the trend. That leads us to the second major news item this week.

In a demonstration that the renewable hydrogen economy is rapidly globalizing, US technology will have its first real-world trial run in Japan.

A consortium of companies has deployed its first compact, low cost hydrogen refueling station in Japan. The group includes US-based Ivys Energy Solutions and PDC Machines, with Japanese partner Tokyo Boeki Mechanics

Called SimpleFuel, the bright blue refueling station has received funding from the US Department of Energy, so group hug for taxpayers!

Here's the rundown:

The SimpleFuel® appliance, paired with a hydrogen-fueled fork lift truck from Toyota Industries, officially began operation today with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Kesen Precut Cooperative, a tree and timber production co-op in Iwate Prefecture, Japan.

With support from the Japanese Environmental Ministry of the Central Government, the SimpleFuel® appliance at Kesen will use solar or grid electricity to produce and deliver hydrogen for use with a Toyota Industries fuel-cell forklift truck.

That's just for starters. The partners already announced that SimpleFuel is coming to the US, Europe and other parts of Asia.

If you caught that thing about "or grid electricity," that's a signal that the renewable hydrogen economy still has a way to go -- but it's getting there.

Photo: via Ivy Systems.

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.

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