Alt-Shift: as alternatives to alternatives, RNG and fuel cell tech markets come clearer, closer

October 15, 2018 |

In California, on the final day of California’s 2018 legislative session, a bill sponsored by the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas that would pave the way for a state renewable natural gas procurement program was approved by the Legislature, passing 29-10 in its reconciliation in the Senate.

It’s material progress in a key market for a leading alternative to…ahem, conventional alternatives. The Coalition advises that “SB 1440 (Hueso) authorizes the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), in consultation with the Air Resources Board, to adopt a biomethane (aka renewable natural gas or RNG) procurement program that would benefit ratepayers, is cost-effective, and advances the state’s environmental and energy policies.”

The Coalition’s other key bill this year, AB 3187 (Grayson), also passed. The bill requires the CPUC to open a proceeding to consider options to promote the in-state production and distribution of biomethane, including recovery in rates of the costs of interconnection infrastructure investments, by no later than July 1, 2019. It was unanimously approved (38-0) by the Senate on August 27 after passing the Assembly earlier this year.  Both bills headed to Governor Brown for signature.

Meanwhile, a hydrogen breakthrough

The appeal of water-splitting technology is that you start with water, you end up with a powerful energy source in hydrogen for fuel cells, and then you get an emission in the form of water, again. A loop anyone can get excited about.

So, where are the fuel-cell vehicles? Comes down to sufficiently affordable and productive reactors. Researchers have been honing in on hydrogen evolution reactions, or HERs, a type of water-splitting technology in which electrodes, covered with catalytic materials, are inserted into water and charged with electricity. 

The problem on the road to affordability? At present, electrodes must be coated with precious, expensive metals, most notably platinum.

But Stanford graduate student Xinjian Shi may have found a solution: a synthesis method that turns cheap, abundant metal sulfides into powerful electrodes for hydrogen evolution reactions. He described the process in a recent study in Energy and Environmental Science.

Working with his advisor, Xiaolin Zheng, associate professor of mechanical engineering, Shi started with something scientists already knew — that sulfide electrode performance could be improved by infusing, or “doping,” the metal with atoms of cobalt. But Shi and Zheng made two innovations to that process: First, they figured out how to control precisely how much cobalt was doped into the electrode. Second, they figured out how to dope the entire electrode in this controlled fashion, not just the exterior surface, as most previous sulfide electrode research had done.

With new techniques, the researchers got the cobalt concentration in the electrode just right — optimal concentration appears to be about 15% — and set a new record for the performance of metal-sulfide based HER electrodes. But their cobalt-doped tungsten disulfide electrodes still fell short of platinum’s performance. The researchers now plan to apply their process to other metal sulfides to find the electrode that most closely matches platinum.

The Search for Carbon Negative at Gigatonne scale

For some thought leadership on the topic, let’s turn to former CIA director and MIT chemistry department chairman John Deutch of MIT and former ARPA-E head Arun Majumdar, now co-helming the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy. The pair published a commentary in Joule on R&D that could lead to negative emissions at gigatonne scale.

Both spoke with the MIT Energy Initiative.

Deutch: “Two pathways which I think have attracted the most attention from serious scientists has been either the water splitting from the sun—splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen—the other one is artificial photosynthesis. Both of those would indeed be a pathway that avoids using energy that has carbon emissions associated. It would be renewable and clean energy. Those have been looked at for a very long time. Quite a few decades.”

Majumdar: “A lot of people think hydrogen is for fuel cells or transportation. Actually, we think that may not be the biggest application of hydrogen, because if you want to do something with CO2 to make a hydrocarbon, whether it’s in a fuel or chemicals or plastic, you need hydrogen. And that hydrogen can come from water. To achieve water splitting, you need energy and it ought be carbon-free energy. This is most likely renewable energy because it is becoming the most inexpensive. For hydrogen production to be cost-effective, the cost of renewable energy is a boundary condition and we see that boundary condition to be reasonably inexpensive to produce hydrogen cost-effectively.* While the boundary condition is necessary, it’s really not sufficient. What we emphasized in our report is there are several pathways to produce hydrogen.”

Hydrogen-Vehicle markets on the rise, finally?

In the UK, a new report from  IDTechEx Research titled ‘Fuel Cell Vehicles 2019-2029’ notes that only a few thousand fuel-cell vehicles are out on the market, mostly niche applications like forklifts or fuel cells for research purposes. Yet, companies like Nikola have already collected over 7000 pre-orders for their fuel cell-powered trucks, which are leased (and not sold), while the company prepares for deploy a US-wide hydrogen-refueling infrastructure.

In this 530-page report, IDTechEx details the main market opportunities with 10-year market forecasts covering FCEV demand in terms of units, megawatt (MW), million USD, and kilograms of platinum catalyst needed. As IDTechEx notes, “as Tesla abandons its initially ambitious plans on selling thousands of battery-powered semis, this can be a golden opportunity for all those companies willing to embrace hydrogen solutions outside of the passenger car market.”

More on the report here.


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