The Hydrogen Spring

March 13, 2014 |

fuelcell-carReminiscent of 2009’s Summer of Algae, when those technologies were coming out of the woodwork, we appear to be in the Hydrogen Spring.

Every time we write about them, more pop up, like a Prairie Dog town.

Over the past couple of months we have written several times about the hunt for hydrogen and effective hydrogen technologies — as an energy carrier for transport fuels, for hydrotreating, and other markets.

But every time we think we have it locked down, another email comes in. “Have you heard of this one? What about that one?”

Take for example Proton Power.

One of the Digesterati, Bill Brandon — who many of you know as a long-time ABLC volunteer, writes:

“Have you heard of Proton Power?    I think they have relevance to your article “Get Cracking!”, although they may not know it.  It was founded and run by a couple of what I would call high temperature chemists from Oakridge.  They are able to produce high hydrogen content syngas from relatively high moisture content (40 -50%) biomass.

“They in some ways remind me of Dr Gaddy at U of Arkansas and his microbe that finally ended up being IneosBio.  I think they have the wrong business model and are chasing the wrong markets.  I think their strengths would be in bio-nitrogen fertilizer and hydrotreating.  These may not seem to be ‘sexy’ enough for them.”

It wasn’t the first time we heard from the readers about Proton Power. A few months back, subscriber Sam Gash wrote:

“I was wondering what you know about a company called Proton Power Inc? They seem to have figured out a way to produce electricity and drop in ready liquid fuels that seem to be a profitable way for the investor to make money and help clean up the environment. I would be interested to know your thoughts.”

And in response to our “The Hunt for Hydrogen,” Larry Cox of Green Diesel & Electric writes, cryptically, “We have the cheap hydrogen. Check it out.” Sure enough, a visit to their website reveals they are using the Proton Power reactors.

So, who exactly is Proton Power?

Jim Bierkamp, their business development manager, wrote us last summer with this summary:

PPI has been in existence since 2009, and what we have come up with is basically a way to make inexpensive hydrogen – we can do it for less than $2/kg.  We are doing this using a patented pyrolysis process that we call CHyP (Cellulose to Hydrogen Power).  We have been flying under the radar from a publicity standpoint, but that is about to change in that we will be starting up our first electricity-generating project – a 750kw switchgrass to electricity project utilizing our CHyP technology – and we will be bringing a 1M gal/yr liquid fuels plant online in 3Q of this year at which we will be demonstrating that we can make diesel fuel, for example, for about $1.75/gal.  We currently have an order backlog of $320M in real projects.

The company’s website.

Solar Hydrogen Trends

Meanwhile, in response to “The Hunt for Hydrogen,” Jack Aganyan, the president of Solar Hydrogen Trends, writes:

“Solar Hydrogen Trends Inc. made possible the cheapest fuel on the planet. It comes from water.  Hydrogen, through a hydrogen reactor.  The fuel is 100% clean and carbon free.  It is cheaper than nuclear, coal, gas, wind and solar power plants.  It is 90% cheaper than gasoline if used to power cars. This is a revolutionary technology breakthrough of this century.   The hydrogen comes from water and turns into water when burned.

“On input of 500 watts the technology produces 2,797 cubic feet of hydrogen or electricity equivalent of 221,500 watts per hour at cost of $1.80 (numbers are audited by professional 3rd party). The cost per gasoline gallon equivalent is $0.25 cents (25 cents) or is $0.008 cents for 1kWh. If you have any doubts about the performance we are happy to host a measurement of the technology output.”

A press release on the topic is here.

Yes, the note registers high on the Digest’s Hype-O-Meter – big claims, specific but hard-to-verify numbers, astonishing costs per gallon, and huge energy return on energy invested, for a technology that liberates free hydrogen from water. So, we’ll note the technology and await more detail — or, a confirming independent analysis.

We are a little skeptical on the math.

Seems to us that 2797 cubic feet translates to 6.6 kilos of hydrogen (Here’s our source.). Now, consider this from Sierra Energy:

“The Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell technologies that utilize hydrogen gas are significantly more efficient compared to internal combustion (IC) engines (less energy is wasted as heat and noise), which results in a fuel cell powering a vehicle approximately 2.5 times as far as a gallon of gasoline in an IC engine1. Therefore, even though 1 kg of hydrogen coincidentally has the same energy content as 1 gallon of gasoline, the 1 kg(H2) has potential to replace 2.5 gallons of gasoline, and thus a hydrogen production cost of $5.00/kg is equivalent to $2.00/Gallon of Gasoline Equivalent”.

Given that, 6.6 kilos of hydrogen should translate into something like 15 gallons of gasoline equivalent — fuel cost around $0.12 per gallon if you start with $1.80 for the hydrogen.

Some reality checks on hydrogen production

Dr. David Dodds, who will be co-leading our review of renewable chemical technologies at ABLC this year, offers some notes on hydrogen production costs and efficiencies:

Using glucose at $400/mt, hydrogen from glucose via a magical 100% efficient process would be $6000/mt, and this is the lowest possible cost of generating reducing equivalents in a fermentation, e.g. this is what it costs Amyris for the hydrogen it hangs on its farnesene carbon skeleton, or what Cobalt, Gevo and others pay to put hydrogen on their butanol skeletons, Genomatica on its BDO skeleton, etc etc etc.

Using 100% efficient electrolysis running on 6 cent/KWhr electricity (standard industrial rate for hydro-power), the cost is $3200/mt; high-end electrolysis cells (i.e. For generating oxygen on submarines) are at least 95% efficient and possibly as high as 98%.

Current “chemical” prices for hydrogen are around $1800/mt from steam cracking methane – I don’t know the efficiency of that process but guess it is near 100%.  As far as the carbon cycle is concerned, it’s CO2 output is exactly the same as just burning the methane.  The Kvaerner process produces elemental carbon (carbon black) instead of CO2, so at a “practical theoretical” level, that carbon could be buried for sequestration.

You can get more information on hydrogen production economics using the DOE’s free tool, here.

Over at Sierra Energy

But over at Sierra Energy, we’ve been covering a technology in recent weeks that has the potential to produce hydrogen at lower cost than conventional fossil fuels, which is generally not achievable by renewable energy production methods.

According to an external review of Sierra’s system:

“Sierra Energy’s FastOx gasification technology allows the complete conversion of solid waste materials into a sustainable synthetic fuel gas (“syngas”) and safe, vitrified slag/glass and recyclable metals. The syngas primarily composed of hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) displaces natural gas, can be ‘carbon negative’ – due to avoiding the emissions from transportation and landfilling the waste, while offsetting natural gas usage – can be converted into sustainable hydrogen, liquid fuels (Fisher-Tropsch diesel, ethanol and precursors to gasoline), electricity and chemicals, or used directly for industrial steam and heat.

“As calculated by the DOE’s H2A model, the FastOx technology even at the small 12.5MTPD (875 kg(H2)/day) scale can produce hydrogen at a paradigm-shifting $4.84/kg(H2) or $1.94/GGE. Above the 500MTPD scale, hydrogen can be produced at negative cost (i.e. the project would pay some entity to take the hydrogen for free!).”

Paradigm-shifting? The compelling benefit there is that the “FastOx technology can be deployed in small-scale, distributed production plants that could be located to solve multiple local municipal problems, including reduction in transportation of waste materials; increased recycling efficiency and the generation of local energy products.”

The FastOx process would “also provide baseload and consistent energy/hydrogen output compared with the unreliable, weather-dependent renewable sources such as wind and solar.”

A Cautionary Note

There’s a vast gap — as the scale-up of cellulosic biofuels has demonstrated — between the development of a paradigm-shifting technology in prototype or pilot-scale, and reaching steady-state operations at a commercial fuel production facility.

We’ll be back to that topic next week. So, let’s not just yet hire the brass bands, break out the bunting, and prepare the ticker-tape parade.

But for sure, there’s a lot of activity underway in the Hydrogen Spring.

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