The Challenges and Opportunities of Affordable Hydrogen

Business, Featured, Hydrogen  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

In a speech to the SAE World Congress in Detroit April 14, Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada—known as the father of the Prius—made a strong case for the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.

“Toyota firmly believes the benefits of a hydrogen society are enormous for a healthy global environment,” he said. “That is why we are playing a leading role in bringing together automakers, energy companies, government agencies and others to help build the required refueling infrastructure.”

Uchiyamada added, “We want to encourage others to participate in creating the hydrogen society. By engaging our collective brain power, these possibilities can become reality….The big problem is … not enough hydrogen refueling stations. If we want fuel-cell vehicles to become popular, we have to build infrastructure from the ground up. And that is no easy task.”

Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada

Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada: “Toyota firmly believes the benefits of a hydrogen society are enormous for a healthy global environment.” (Toyota photo)

The problem Uchiyamada identified is two-fold: the cost of building new stations ($1 to $2 million) and the cost of producing the hydrogen. The holy grail for producers, either from water or a feedstock like natural gas, has been to get the production cost down so that the highly efficient fuel cell can deliver a per-mile operating cost that’s comparable or less than that of gasoline.

We can’t discount that a breakthrough would greatly reduce the cost of hydrogen. It’s certainly eye-opening when Kirill Gichunts, CEO of H2 Energy Renaissance, based in Los Angeles, says it can produce hydrogen for $1 a kilogram (a kilo has the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline).

“We are about four to seven times cheaper than electrolysis,” Gichunts claims. “Steam reforming of natural gas has huge capital costs, and it’s inconvenient.”

H2 uses water, a small amount of electricity and aluminum as its key components. It’s not electrolysis, Gichunts says, but uses some elements of it. A cartridge of aluminum plates is submerged in water to produce hydrogen. Previous work with these materials ran into trouble because the corrosive nature of aluminum leads to the plates becoming coated with an oxide film that stops the hydrogen production process.

H2, currently a relatively small operation, says it has developed a form of electro-hydraulic shock that sustains the reaction continuously. “We have prototypes and demonstration units,” Gichunts said. “Our preferred approach is to license the technology, because we don’t have the resources to develop it ourselves.”

An H2 demonstration unit uses approximately 150 watts of electricity, and can produce seven to 10 cubic feet of hydrogen per minute (1.42 kilos of hydrogen an hour, approximately)—a rate the company claims has been verified by independent testers.

Gichunts imagines his units living on board fuel-cell cars and delivering up 1,000 miles of range before needing a refill of water and/or metal. Obviously, if that technology is real and practical it would eliminate the need for a big, expensive refueling network. But such claims have to be taken cautiously.

The Department of Energy’s 2015 target for central or distributed hydrogen production was $3.10 to $3.70 per kilogram. By 2020, it would like to see a gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) of hydrogen cost between $2 and $4 “delivered and dispensed.”

That “delivered and dispensed” is key. H2’s $1 a gallon is a production cost, and today compression and delivery adds a fair amount to the bottom line. Robert Rose, founding executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute and founder of the U.S Fuel Cell Council, says that $1 per kilo isn’t that remarkable today.

“You can make hydrogen today via steam reforming for less than $1,” he said. “It is the storage, delivery and profit that put the price so high at the pump.” Pump gasoline, of course, also has cost added in the form of taxes, which are likely to eventually be applied to hydrogen also.

Rose says the H2 technology is likely to be “a long way from commercial.” He adds. “There are many technologies du jour, and many early-stage ideas, some of them quite good. The hard part is separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Gichunts concedes that compressing hydrogen adds $2 to the cost of a kilo, but he doesn’t envision incurring that added burden. “Our hydrogen generator is small enough and can be placed at the source where hydrogen is needed,” he said. “It’s like a fuel tank that can be placed on buses, trucks, ships, trains and in the back yards of homes. It just needs water and aluminum every 500 to 1,000 miles. That eliminates the need to transport or serious compression costs.”

Toyota is, by the way, very serious about sharing hydrogen resources. At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2015, the company said it would make 5,680 fuel-cell patents, held globally, available to hydrogen developers royalty free. Echoing Uchiyamada’s recent speech, Toyota’s Bob Carter, a senior vice president of automotive operations, said back then, “At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen.”

Here’s more about H2 Energy Renaissance on video:

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