Hydrogen and a story of a simple fuel, and SimpleFuel

March 2, 2020 |

There are two places in the world we thought there would long have been a hydrogen project built or announced. One, at the Port of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, and one at the Prairie View Industrial Center complex near Ames, Iowa.

The absence of projects reminds us that it is not always about the project offtakers, feedstock and infrastructure, siting is sometimes grounded in the identity and location of the strategic partners and the incentives which accelerate project commitments. And, sometimes that technology that will open up the “obvious locations” is just now reaching the market.

The Fundamentals

Today, let’s look though at those project fundamentals and how they can turn waste materials into value streams — where the projects are built, that’s the most likely place that hydrogen for industry or mobility will grow and be strong.

There are four factors that really define projects, as we have heard it from developers — aside from the incentives and the location of the principals.

Feedstock. No feedstock, no project, and in the world of hydrogen that means we are on the hunt for abundant water or abundant methane. Now, water is 6 percent hydrogen by weight and methane is 25 percent hydrogen. A sugar is around 7 percent hydrogen also, so there’s another option if stranded biomass is available. There’s urea if you can find it, which is 20 percent hydrogen, but we’re a world short on urea, more or less. Waste hydrogen peroxide is about 14 percent hydrogen if you have some — good luck finding it.

So, on the whole, we’d like methane if its renewable and affordable, and that brings us to animal waste, which generates a whole bunch of methane, and in recent years we have anaerobically converted dairy waste to a methane-rich biogas, using methanogens to do the work for us. The target has generally been power, but why not hydrogen?

The Prairie View complex near Ames, Iowa

Local applications. Lots of reasons to make hydrogen, and the main one is to make ammonia as a fertilizer, but there are  stationary fuel cell applications, selected mobility opportunities, and most importantly, chemicals. If you have lots of hydrogen, lots of chemical companies will esteem your neck of the woods when it comes time to make sustainable materials.

Infrastructure. When the biogas tuns out, or runs short, that’s when natural gas comes into play as a supplement, and that’s where gas pipeline comes in handy.

Given Iowa’s huge pig and cattle populations, and the fact that for some reason Prairie View has a big natgas pipeline running into the center, and given the ammonia demand, we always think that a hydrogen production plant is just around the corner.

Talent. Not to mention the talent pool accumulated by Iowa State University and a host of mid-sized companies like Renewable Energy Group located in the area. 

Having said that, Verbio is producing biogas, right there, using the old Cellulosic biomass plant that DuPont Industrial Biosciences built before they merged with Dow and broke into three companies known as Corteva, Dow, and PivotUntilItHurts….whoops, I meant to say DuPont.

If natural gas doesn’t sound too sustainably appetizing, there’s water as a supplement, and Iowa is one of the states that is relatively replete with it, and a stable aquifer. Small scale generation and refueling, for farm-scale operations, where are we with that?

The SimpleFuel story

We might look no farther than SimpleFuel which won the $1 million H2 Refuel H-Prize Competition in 2017 that was launched by DOE.  The H-Prize challenged America’s innovators to deploy an on-site hydrogen generation system, using electricity or natural gas, to fuel hydrogen vehicles, that can be used in homes, community centers, small businesses, or similar locations.

SimpleFuel is a simplified hydrogen station that uses electricity from solar panels at the plant site to produce low-carbon hydrogen from the electrolysis of water, which is then supplied to fuel-cell forklifts (FC forklifts) after it is compressed and pressurized. It can produce up to 99 Nm3/day (approx. 8.8 kg/day) of hydrogen, enough to fuel seven or eight FC forklifts. Its compact size means it can be installed in small spaces, making it suitable for refueling FC forklifts within the plant.

SimpleFuel is a collaboration of three companies: Ivys Energy Solutions (Massachusetts), McPhy Energy N.A. (Massachusetts), and PDC Machines (Pennsylvania).

The Toyota gambit

Last year, Toyota announced that it added SimpleFuel to its Motomachi Plant in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture. A hydrogen station has been running at Motomachi Plant since March 2018, in conjunction with the increasing numbers of FC forklifts in use there. By working to support fueling through the use of SimpleFuel, with an eye toward the rising demand for hydrogen, Toyota aims to reduce CO2 emissions at the Motomachi Plant and intends to support the accumulation of new technologies and knowledge.

The DOE, Hyundai in the mix

All of this leads up to a fascinating development out of Washington DC in recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Energy and Hyundai Motor Company announced a collaboration to assess the current status of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies’ performance and address the challenges they face. This effort will foster the independent and objective validation of these emerging technologies, including detailed evaluation of the fueling infrastructure.

Bottom line, SimpleFuel has taken a circuitous path to deployment in DC, via Japan, but DC indeed will host the first deployment of this interesting technology that has, we think, fascinating implications for farm producers seeking to decarbonize, and especially those who wish for renewable power but haven’t the right footprint for solar or wind. 

And, enough hydrogen, look for those renewable chemical applications, and it’s not gone un-noticed that Iowa now has a renewable chemical production inventive — perfectly positioned for all that pig waste from which methane and water can become powerful feedstocks for hydrogen’s future.

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