Why hydrogen (probably) nonetheless is sensible – automobile and driver

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Martin Tengler, leading hydrogen analyst at BloombergNEF in Tokyo, likes to talk about how we've been on the cusp of at least the fourth pro-hydrogen fast frenzy since 1974. This year Road & Track advertised “Hydrogen: New & Clean” Fuel for the Future “on the March cover. They probably meant no more than 45 years in the future.

The second madness came in 2005 when the CEO of Ballard Power Systems, a manufacturer of fuel cells, said they would sell between 200,000 and 500,000 a year to automakers through 2010. You haven't reached that mark.

And then there was 2009 when several automakers signed a memorandum of understanding that they would sell hundreds of thousands of hydrogen-powered cars by 2014. That didn't happen either.

But this next almost frenzy could be different, Tengler believes. It was only in the past year that the forecast growth, or at least the interest in hydrogen power, grew beyond the most recent forecasts. While most automakers have announced ambitious electrification plans for plug-in vehicles, Honda recently ensured that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would be included in its goal of phasing out gasoline engines in North America by 2040. Daimler Trucks and Volvo have formed a partnership in Europe. Try to cut costs and make hydrogen for long-haul trucks financially viable.

Why is Tengler optimistic now? Especially since California, the only place in the US with a hydrogen infrastructure, continues to struggle with supply despite modest demand. Because the costs for hydrogen production will decrease considerably, not only for dirty “gray” hydrogen, which is produced for example by fossil fuels or coal, but also for environmentally friendly green hydrogen.

Tengler believes these costs could decrease by 85 percent by 2050. In the meantime, no one predicts gasoline will drop 85 percent by now.

By then, the cost could drop below $ 1 per kilogram of hydrogen, compared to an average cost of $ 16.51 per kilogram in 2019. The hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai averages 73 miles per kilogram, according to the EPA.

Interestingly, this latest hydrogen rush has little to do with cars. In fact, Tengler said, “Hydrogen may not be the best fuel for cars.” So compared to electricity.

What Tengler and his forecasting team is passionate about hydrogen is its industrial future, the making of steel, plastic, and cement it does now, and the propulsion of airplanes, ships, and trains that it doesn't. According to Tengler, Solar-PV is at the top of the cost reduction forecasts. Solar photovoltaics or PV combines words for light (photo) and electricity (voltaic). Solar PV is the way solar converts sunlight into electricity, and the process can also be used to produce hydrogen fuel. “Falling costs for solar PV are the main driver,” said Tengler behind his enthusiasm for hydrogen, which reflects his enthusiasm for solar.

Also his enthusiasm for China. Most of the electrolysers that make hydrogen are made in China, and the vast majority of solar systems are made in China, and the overwhelming percentages are expected to increase.

“Such low costs for renewable hydrogen could completely rewrite the energy map,” said Tengler. “It shows that going forward, at least 33 percent of the world economy could run on clean energy for not a cent more than fossil fuel. But the technology will continue to require government support to get there – we're on high part of the cost curve is needed now, and politically supported investment is needed to get to the low part. “

So solar is a possible solution for improving the hydrogen supply. Two more could travel to California by the end of the year.

WAYS2H: garbage + thermochemical process = hydrogen

Jean-Louis Kindler, co-founder and CEO of Ways2H, is not yet practicing what he preaches. “I drive a gas eater,” he said. “I love my gas eater.” Sure, he'd love to drive something hydrogen-powered to the nearest Trader Joe, but the available inventory of hydrogen-powered vehicles doesn't particularly appeal to large or sporty vehicle enthusiasts, but Kindler believes it is to come.

And until then, he can pump processed garbage into the tank.

Kindler's company plans to build relatively small hydrogen refineries near landfills, separate metal and glass, and use the rest – from milk cartons to cat litter to what is pictorially referred to as “mud” – to make “blue” hydrogen use.

A nearly completed facility in Tokyo that converts sewage sludge into renewable hydrogen gas for fuel cell vehicles. Ways2H plans to bring the technology to California this year.

TODA CORPORATION / Japan Blue Energy Co. Ltd.

About 90 percent of today's hydrogen is “gray” and is made using electricity or fossil fuels. The hydrogen is then loaded into pipe trailers that are pulled by tractor units and delivered to gas stations, most of which are in California. This delivery is the most expensive part of the kilo price. When clean energies go, blue hydrogen is better. (“Green” hydrogen, the type that could be produced by solar energy, is the Holy Grail.)

Kindler's refineries use a chemical process to generate the necessary heat – not electricity or petroleum – in an oxygen-free atmosphere at 1200 to 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. “Completely plausible” to make hydrogen from garbage, said Tengler from BloombergNEF. “It's done here in Japan.”

Kindler's first Ways2H refinery comes from Japan, three containers that will go on board in June and could produce hydrogen from garbage in California by the end of the year. Where in California? He's not ready to say. Larger systems would be built in, but Kindler wanted to start with a smaller one to illustrate its portability. It will be a humble operation at first, taking trash from the community it is in, and then returning the hydrogen to the city for power.

The standard-size Ways2H system “processes 24 tons of waste per day for a hydrogen yield of 1 to 1.5 tons,” according to Kindler, to fill the tanks of 200 to 300 passenger cars.

“Did you know there are 30,000 hydrogen-powered forklifts in America?” he said. We do not have. But it makes sense – no pollution in the warehouse and no three to four hours of downtime when charging the batteries.

Kindler said the refineries are scalable and can be made much larger to produce commercial hydrogen that can be marketed. A major customer? The long-haul industry working hard on hydrogen-powered vehicles.

And for Kindler, maybe a big, comfortable hydrogen eater as soon as someone makes one.

POWERTAP: produce hydrogen on site at filling stations.

If you've seen the IndyCar season kick off April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park, Alabama, you may have seen some Andretti Autosport crew members with “PowerTap” on the back of their uniforms. It was a calm result for a company planning to open 500 hydrogen filling stations over the next several years, starting at 29 in California, at existing stations owned by racing driver businessmen Mario and Michael Andretti.

In contrast to current stations, PowerTap plans to build small buildings at the existing stations that will house hydrogen production facilities. It will use natural gas and city water to produce blue hydrogen and sequester and store leftover carbon.

A rendering of the hydrogen fuel production facility planned by PowerTap.


It's a conventional method – “The technology dates back a hundred years,” Tengler said, and China is bringing inexpensive electrolysers to market at an impressive rate so it's not that expensive to buy in.

But like the kindler of Ways2H, PowerTap CEO Raghu Kilambi sees a much more immediate way to profit from the 18-wheel and medium-sized truck market than from the automobile. Yes, he's been familiar with battery-powered Semis like the proposed Tesla version, “but I don't think it's commercially viable now.” The size and weight of the batteries required, the time to recharge, the infrastructure to recharge tractor units – hydrogen is now ready as soon as truckers have a place to buy. Toyota is likely to be the first to ride a hydrogen-powered heavy truck unless Nikola can get his house in order.

All you have to do to sell a new type of truck is make sure it makes business sense. “Cars are often emotional purchases,” said Kilambi. “People don't buy Ferraris because they generate income. Haulage companies will buy what they need to make a profit.” The ability to locate hydrogen production and fueling stations across the country is a huge boon to the hydrogen-powered trucking initiative – there is no need to transport hydrogen to distant locations via pipelines, rails or trucks.

Kilambi also said its stations can produce a kilo of hydrogen for several dollars. If he could sell it for, say, $ 8 per kilogram, that would cut the price of current hydrogen outlets almost in half.

What PowerTap makes possible is exactly what Tengler felt was necessary – “politically supported investment” – or in other words, government money. And California's generous emission allowance. At some point, Kilambi said, you got carbon credits for what you sold. But now you can get infrastructure carbon credits as soon as you have something to sell, and that's a huge part of PowerTap's financial strategy. Carbon credits are a tradable asset, and their value under the Biden administration is likely to flourish and spread to other states, Kilambi hopes.

In a chicken-or-egg scenario, the egg appears to be government funded before they sell chickens. PowerTap will build the stations with mostly private capital, and once they are built they will amass enough carbon credits to bridge them until the hydrogen market catches up with the new supply.

It works on paper. We could see how well it works in the real world before the end of the year.

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