US Green Hydrogen Kicks Into High Gear, Politics Or Not

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Oh the irony, it burns. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed Congress in 2021 with votes from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including those who support the fossil fuel industry. Little did they know that the new law makes room for the renewable energy chickens to come home to roost. In the latest example, the US Department of Energy has just announced a new $750 million round of BIL funding, aimed at replacing fossil-sourced hydrogen with green hydrogen from water.

From Electric Forklifts To Green Hydrogen

The US green hydrogen startup Plug Power emailed CleanTechnica on March 13 to remind us about the new round of funding, so let’s zero in on it.

If that name rings a bell, it should. Plug Power first surfaced on the CleanTechnica radar back during the Obama administration, when the Energy Department was promoting the replacement of conventional forklifts with fuel cell electric forklifts in order to help reduce worksite emissions, especially in warehouses and other indoor environments.

Battery-powered forklifts are another zero emission option for indoor worksites. However, in the tightly wound world of logistics operations, fuel cells can save time and space compared to battery management systems.

The idea has caught on and Plug Power is still making fuel cell forklifts. However, much has changed since the early 2000s. Back then, practically the entire global supply of hydrogen was sourced from natural gas, with coal also chipping in a lesser portion. New technology is finally beginning to offer alternative, renewable hydrogen resources.

Prying gas and coal out of the hydrogen supply chain is much more than a matter of fuel cells. If every fuel cell on Earth disappeared tomorrow, hydrogen would still be pumping up the global economy with inputs for fertilizer, food processing, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, and refinery systems among other industries.

Fossil fuels still dominate the global hydrogen supply by a wide margin, but two recent developments — low cost renewable energy and new electrolysis technology — have combined to give renewable green hydrogen a crack at the market (see more fuel cell and renewable H2 coverage here).

BIL Launches Green Hydrogen Sneak Attack On Fossil Fuels

Plug Power is one of those US startups to have its ups and downs in the early years, especially when its primary focus was on fuel cell mobility. The company pivoted into green hydrogen several years ago and expanded its business to include manufacturing electrolysis systems that deploy renewable energy to jolt hydrogen gas from water.

In the latest news, earlier this week the Energy Department reminded everyone that the BIL includes a $1 billion carve-out for a soup-to-nuts program aimed at reducing the cost of clean hydrogen, from initial research to final demonstration. Another $500 million is earmarked for a similar program that focuses on clean hydrogen equipment manufacturing and recycling.

The word “clean” is a bit loaded in the hydrogen field, because some fossil energy stakeholders (you know who you are) have been attempting to slot conventional hydrogen systems with carbon capture into the “clean” category. They may be fooling some of the people some of the time, but for this round of BIL funding the Energy Department is focusing $750 million on green hydrogen from water.

“These projects will advance electrolysis technologies and improve manufacturing and recycling capabilities for clean hydrogen systems and components,” the Energy Department emphasizes, referring to the 52 projects selected for the new round of funding.

New, Improved PEM Electrolyzers Are Coming

Membrane-free electrolyzers and other variations are in development, but the commercial electrolyzer market of today is dominated by proton exchange membrane technology. Bringing down the high cost of the delicately calibrated membrane has been one focus of the Energy Department’s attention, along with using more eco-friendly materials.

The membrane commonly used in PEM systems is fabricated with perfluorinated materials, which are preferred for their stability and thermal tolerance. PFCs and their umbrella compounds, PFAS, have been widely used since the 1950s. However, these “forever chemicals” have been targeted for elimination, especially in food packaging.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at nine awards that Plug Power is either leading in, or participating in (you can get all the details from the Energy Department here).

Plug Power is spearheading one grant aimed at replacing perflourinated materials in PEM electrolyzer systems with an alternative, including additives to provide for safe, efficient operation.

Similarly, reducing “forever chemicals” (their words) in fuel cell membranes is the focus of another BIL grant with the company Ionomr Innovations at the helm. The project partners include Plug Power, the firm Johnson Matthey, and the University of California – Irvine. “The project will develop innovative hydrocarbon membranes to replace incumbent fluorinated materials,” Plug Power explains. Hydrocarbon material generally refers to a type of polymer or plastic but we’re checking in with Plug Power for more details, so stay tuned for that.

Gigawatt-scale manufacturing is also a focus of attention. Under this grant, Plug Power will lead a team to develop new, automated systems for manufacturing PEM electrolysis systems while pushing costs down. “This project will automate membrane electrode assembly fabrication and stack assembly and enable automated inspection with machine learning to accelerate factory acceptance testing,” Plug Power notes.

In a related award, Plug Power will lead a $30 million project aimed at adding 20,000 fuel cell stacks to the existing output of a “global leader in clean hydrogen technologies,” with an assist from the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. If you have any idea who that global leader might be, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Alkaline Electrolyzers Are Having A Moment

In addition to PEM technology, the Energy Department is also interested an alternative technology called alkaline electrolysis. The up-front cost of alkaline systems is lower than PEM, but some kinks still need to be worked out in terms of performance and operating expenses. Though alkaline systems are considered more efficient for large-scale green hydrogen production, their use is limited to cases that do not require a high level of purity.

Under the current state of affairs, Plug Power makes the case for PEM. However,  the company apparently has some ideas about improving the membrane used in alkaline systems, because it is a partner in another Energy Department award to Ionomr, aimed at developing a new alkaline membrane. If all goes according to plan, the new membrane will lead to manufacturing improvements and scale-up. The other partners are Teledyne Energy Systems, De Nora Technologies, and the University of South Carolina.

Green Hydrogen From Cradle To Grave

Plug Power also has a hand in four other projects to receive BIL funding. These four projects support scale-up and manufacturing with new systems and materials:

The new H2CIRC consortium, led by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, is tasked with developing supply chain, recycling, and other lifecycle solutions for PEM fuel cells and electrolyzers.

The firm ACS Industries will lead an early-stage project aimed at improving the performance of PEM electrolyzers.

The firm Materic will lead a new, low cost fuel cell supply chain solution, led by the firm Materic.

The Board of Trustees of Leland Junior University in California will direct a theory-based project leading to low cost, high performance catalysts for PEM systems. That sounds somewhat mysterious, but the partners include the Energy Department’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Carnegie Mellon University in addition to Plug Power.

Circling back around to that “clean” hydrogen issue, there have been some concerns over the Energy Department’s commitment to removing fossil inputs from the hydrogen supply chain. Part of the concern derives from a funding carve-out for natural gas written into the BIL, which impacts the Energy Department’s administration of funding for the new Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program.

The Energy Department can’t simply ignore that part of the BIL funding stream, but the new round of electrolysis funding indicates that natural gas stakeholders will have to run to keep up. The Energy Department has set a 2031 goal of $1.00 per kilogram for green hydrogen, at which point Bloomberg is among those anticipating that natural gas will be out of the running.

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Image: The US green hydrogen industry is getting an assist from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which is funding new projects to cut costs and increase production (courtesy of Plug Power).

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