If you ask the US Energy Department, hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles are on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough. You’ll get a somewhat different answer from battery electric vehicle experts, but the fact of the matter is that the Energy Department is going with its gut. Earlier this year, the agency launched a $35 million round of funding for advancing hydrogen technologies for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), and last week it doubled down with another $35 million offer covering 4 key areas of interest.
1. More & Better Hydrogen For FCEVs
Of the 4 areas of interest, we’re particularly interested in area of interest 1, which covers the production of hydrogen fuel through water splitting.
For those of you new to the topic, the hydrogen angle is key because, currently, the primary source of hydrogen fuel is fossil natural gas, which bears a tremendous amount of environmental and public health baggage linked to the direct impacts and side effects of fracking (fracking is short for hydrofracturing, a gas and oil drilling method that involves shooting large quantities of chemical brine into shale formations).
Water splitting leaps over that obstacle because the process can be powered by renewable energy. CleanTechnica has been following the connection between renewable energy and water splitting as it relates to “bionic leaf” technology as well as systems based onelectrolysis, but the Energy Department has already funded projects in those areas. With the new round of funding, the agency is turning its attention to this new thing called high-temperature water splitting as a more efficient way to deploy renewable energy for hydrogen production:
One hydrogen production pathway that has not been included in recent funding opportunities is advanced high‐temperature water splitting (HTWS), including operation on renewable, low‐carbon electricity sources. HTWS used in conjunction with high‐temperature process heat offers the potential for highly efficient, cost‐effective large‐scale hydrogen production.
Compared with low‐temperature electrolysis, the high operating temperatures of HTWS technologies offer the advantage of operating at enhanced electrical efficiencies while maintaining high hydrogen production rates (reflected in high operating current densities). In terms of feedstock costs, HTWS offers the opportunity to trade off more expensive electrical energy with generally less expensive thermal energy…
H2A refers to the Energy Department’s hydrogen production analysis model, btw.
For you nuclear energy fans out there (don’t forget these guys, too!), the Energy Department is also interested in using waste heat from nuclear power plants to power HTWS systems.
2. Climate Action Champions For FCEVs
With area of interest 2, the Energy Department aims to ramp up the pace of the FCEV fueling infrastructure by tackling the supply chain:
A significant cost driver of the hydrogen refueling infrastructure today is the lack of a mature supply chain for components. Most components used at the forecourt (e.g., hoses, valves, couplings, and fittings) have fewer than five suppliers worldwide. Components produced by different suppliers are often custom made, and therefore not interchangeable. Moreover, many components, such as fittings, are not certified, which ultimately limits or delays their use. The deployment of FCEVs in the commercial market is also making the reliability of the hydrogen refueling infrastructure essential. Accordingly, proposals are sought for the development of innovative, low‐cost manufacturing processes/technologies and components for hydrogen fueling stations, and demonstration of the components in hydrogen service.
Area of interest 2 also intersects with a White House initiative called the Climate Action Champions (CAC). If you didn’t know we had one of those, join the club. CAC launched right around this time last year. It consists of a group of 16 local and tribal communities that have already established leadership in “defining the frontier of climate action.” As a group, their mission is to provide a platform for peer-to-peer learning and serving as a model for other communities.
CAC communities that are already involved in the deployment of FCEVs and related technologies will be recognized in area of interest 2 with additional funding for fleet applications and refueling infrastructure.
3. & 4. Picking Energy Winners & Losers
With this new round of funding, the Energy Department is once again picking energy “winners and losers” to borrow a phrase from US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). According to Senator Cruz and the Republican Party platform, the federal government should not be funding energy projects, and with that in mind, Senator Cruz has called for the abolition of the Energy Department.
As a fundamental matter of national defense, we’re not entirely convinced that domestic energy production should rest entirely on the vagaries of the global energy marketplace, but the real point is that the fossil fuel industry has long benefited from its “winner” status in the form of various federal and state subsidies, highlighted by the establishment of the Energy Department in 1977 to promote exploitation of domestic resources.
In the latest twist, a new Deloitte study reveals how the oil and gas industry has continued to benefit from patents based on foundational research at Energy Department laboratories.
That brings us to area of interest 3, which covers just such foundational research. It provides funding for Energy Department laboratories and partners to conduct collaborative, consortia-based foundational research leading to improved fuel cell performance and durability leading to lower costs.
Relatedly, area of interest 4 provides funding for new analytic tools for measuring fuel cell performance and costs.
Now that fossil energy is on the wane, the fossil fuel lobby would like to roll up the federal funding carpet after itself. That’s perfectly understandable but as we’ve noted elsewhere, abolishing the Department of Energy will hardly do the trick. Senator Cruz will have to also abolish the Departments of the Navy, Air Force, and Agriculture among others, so good luck with that.