Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cleaning Up Hydrogen

Electric vehicles (EVs) like the Tesla Model S are powered with energy stored batteries usually sitting on the car floor.   The energy is sourced from power plants that deliver electricity to outlets at homes, business or charging stations.  Since most electricity generated in the U.S. is produced by burning coal, there is more likely than not a lump of coal in the ‘well-to-wheel’ analysis of the total environmental impact for the Tesla Model S. 

Fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)  such as Toyota's new Mirai are different and yet the same.  Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells tap into energy stored in gaseous hydrogen cylindars, making FCEVs more like conventional cars that use energy stored in on-board tanks in the form of liquid gas.  The same ‘well-to-wheel’ analysis for hydrogen fuel cells also turns up some nasty carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide on the way from the natural gas well to the car’s wheels.  This is because most hydrogen available in the U.S. is reformed from natural gas in an electricity-intensive process. 

Thus cars powered by fuel cells or batteries are only as clean as the electricity used to produce the power source.  Proponents of hydrogen fuel cells argue that fuel cells have an edge over batteries, because hydrogen can ultimately be made cleaner with innovations in hydrogen production. 

A Florida company called Chemergy, Inc. is working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop a process for producing hydrogen from municipal wastewater.  The California Energy Commission has put a dog in the race by providing some of the required $1.8 million funding.  The process is being tested at the Delta Diablo Sanitation District in the San Francisco Bay area.  The District is one of nineteen agencies involved participating in the Bay Area Biosolids to Energy Coalition to find sustainable management solutions to turn biosolids into energy.

Chemergy’s process requires two steps or shortcuts that are aimed at reducing the time and cost of turning the biological elements in liquid waste streams to hydrogen.  The process does not require lengthy time and catalysts for fermentation or anaerobic digestion.  Furthermore its does not require high temperatures that run up the power bills of producers using gasification or pyrolysis processes. 

Do not expect news before the end of 2015 on the San Francisco tests.  Chemergy has set a goal of eighteen months to produce a prototype system that could process up to one ton of biowaste daily.  With a completed prototype Chemergy might be in the hunt to financial support to take it to a commercial product.  Chemergy is among the most recent additions to the Hydrogen Group of our Beach Boys Index of alternative energy companies.  It is worthwhile to watch for further progress by Chemergy.

The next post features a group taking an entirely different approach to renewable hydrogen.


Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.


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