Microsoft and Toyota are revving up interest in hydrogen fuel-cell energy tech PDF Print E-mail
Toyota MiraiToyota’s Mirai fuel-cell sedan runs on hydrogen. (Toyota Photo)

Grid battery storage projects like Tesla’s 100-megawatt installation in Australia may be getting lots of press, but behind the scenes, hydrogen fuel-cell systems are carving out a niche in applications ranging from non-polluting motor vehicles to power-gobbling data centers.

“It’s not either-or,” said Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technology Office. “We definitely need battery electric vehicles, we need advanced combustion, biofuels — really, all of the above. But what’s unique about hydrogen is its versatility.”

Satyapal and some prominent users of fuel-cell systems, including executives from Microsoft and Toyota, discussed the state of the art in Seattle today during the CleanTech Innovation Showcase, presented by CleanTech Alliance.

Fuel cells generate energy through a straightforward chemical reaction: Stored hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air with the aid of a catalyst, producing electricity. The devices are about twice as efficient as internal combustion engines when it comes to converting chemical energy into power, and the only emissions they produce are air and water vapor.

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“For us, it’s all about the emissions,” said Ron Kent, advanced technologies manager for the Southern California Gas Company.

Today, most hydrogen fuel is produced from natural gas, but energy companies are also fine-tuning  techniques that use electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis. The hydrogen provides a portable way to store the energy for later use.

Kent’s company is partnering with the University of California at Irvine and the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory on demonstration projects that combine hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane fuel.

“It allows use to grab CO2 and do something with it,” Kent said. “We’re using microbes to do it.”

Microsoft aims to use fuel cells, as well as grid batteries, to make sure its data centers can cope with spikes in power usage when the internet glows hot.

“Our vision is that fuel cells are primary power, not backup,” Sean James, director of energy research at Microsoft, told GeekWire. Microsoft has been experimenting with fuel-cell-powered data centers that run on biogas or natural gas, with the eventual aim of using hydrogen made with solar or wind power.

One big drawback is the capital cost. “Fuel cells are already pretty efficient, but they’re also pretty expensive,” James said. He advised energy researchers to focus on making the devices cheaper rather than increasing their efficiency.

Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technology Office, moderates a panel at the CleanTech Innovation Showcase in Seattle. To the left are Ron Kent of the Southern California Gas Company and Sean James of Microsoft. To the right are Total Transportation Services’ Victor La Rosa and Toyota’s Dave Bora. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Fuel cells are slowly gaining ground in the automotive sector as well. For several years, California-based Total Transportation Services has been running a fleet of freight trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells, alongside trucks powered by batteries and natural gas.

Setting up mobile hydrogen fuelers is one of the keys to success, said Victor La Rosa, the company’s CEO.

“It gives us a lot of versatility, and the ability to open up using hydrogen anywhere,” he said. “But more than anything, it increases our range. That’s really the most significant thing, especially over the battery technology.”

Total Transportation’s hydrogen-powered trucks have a range of about 250 miles, compared with 100 miles on average for battery-driven trucks, La Rosa said. Moreover, hydrogen refueling goes much faster than battery recharging, he said.

The availability of hydrogen refueling stations, or lack thereof, is a limiting factor. Right now, California and Hawaii are the only states that have them. But Dave Bora, senior manager for advanced technologies research at Toyota Motors North America, is hoping that’ll change sooner rather than later.

Toyota already makes a hydrogen-powered passenger sedan known as the Mirai (which is the Japanese word for “the future”). Toyota says the car will become available this year in Canada, starting with Quebec.

Just this month, a hydrogen fueling station opened in Vancouver, B.C. — the first of what’s expected to be eight such stations to make their debut in British Columbia over the next two years. The stations are meant to service Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Tucson model as well as the Mirai and the Honda Clarity.

“Now we have California and Canada, and we’re starting to look at Oregon and Washington, in between … to kinda get the West Coast going,” Bora said.

Scientists calculate impact of China's ban on plastic waste imports PDF Print E-mail
June 20, 2018
University of Georgia


Credit: CC0 Public Domain


While recycling is often touted as the solution to the large-scale production of plastic waste, upwards of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling is exported from higher income countries to other nations, with China historically taking the largest share.

But in 2017, China passed the "National Sword" policy, which permanently bans the import of non-industrial plastic waste as of January 2018. Now, scientists from the University of Georgia have calculated the potential global impact of this legislation and how it might affect efforts to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the world's landfills and natural environment.

They published their findings today in the journal Science Advances.

"We know from our previous studies that only 9 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and the majority of it ends up in landfills or the natural environment," said Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in UGA's College of engineering and co-author of the study. "About 111 million metric tons of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban through 2030, so we're going to have to develop more robust recycling programs domestically and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly."

Global annual imports and exports of plastic waste skyrocketed in 1993, growing by about 800 percent through 2016.

Since reporting began in 1992, China has accepted about 106 million metric tons of plastic waste, which accounts for nearly half of the world's plastic waste imports. China and Hong Kong have imported more than 72 percent of all plastic waste, but most of the waste that enters Hong Kong—about 63 percent—is exported to China.

This animated graphic shows how many metric tons of plastic waste were imported or exported by select countries from 1996 to 2016. It also includes an estimation of how much plastic waste will be displaced should current trends continue to 2030. Credit: Lindsay Robinson

High income countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas account for more than 85 percent of all global plastic waste exports. Taken collectively, the European Union is the top exporter.

"Plastic waste was once a fairly profitable business for China, because they could use or resell the recycled plastic waste," said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student in UGA's College of Engineering and lead author of the paper. "But a lot of the plastic China received in recent years was poor quality, and it became difficult to turn a profit. China is also producing more plastic waste domestically, so it doesn't have to rely on other nations for waste."

For exporters, cheap processing fees in China meant that shipping waste overseas was less expensive than transporting the materials domestically via truck or rail, said Brooks.

"It's hard to predict what will happen to the plastic waste that was once destined for Chinese processing facilities," said Jambeck. "Some of it could be diverted to other countries, but most of them lack the infrastructure to manage their own waste let alone the waste produced by the rest of the world."

The import of plastic waste to China contributed an additional 10 to 13 percent of plastic waste on top of what they were already having a difficult time managing because of rapid economic growth before the import ban took effect, Jambeck said.

"Without bold new ideas and system-wide changes, even the relatively low current recycling rates will no longer be met, and our previously recycled materials could now end up in landfills," Jambeck said.

'The fastest way to a zero-emission world' Hyundai and Audi form hydrogen fuel cell partnership PDF Print E-mail

Hyundai and Audi have announced a hydrogen partnership that will see both brands cooperating in the development of automotive fuel cell technology.

The multi-year patent cross-licensing agreement includes "a broad range" of components for fuel cell cars (a type of zero-emission vehicle that runs on hydrogen) and will "leverage collective research and development capabilities" in hydrogen propulsion. This announcement comes after Audi renewed its partnership with long-standing fuel cell supplier Ballard Power Systems earlier in June. 

“The fuel cell is the most systematic form of electric driving and thus a potent asset in our technology portfolio for the emission-free premium mobility of the future,” said Peter Mertens, Board Member for Technical Development at AUDI AG.

“On our FCEV roadmap, we are joining forces with strong partners such as Hyundai. For the breakthrough of this sustainable technology, cooperation is the smart way to leading innovations with attractive cost structures.” 

Audi is the hydrogen fuel cell lead within the Volkswagen Group and is understood to be developing FCEV road cars for introduction in 2020. Hyundai is a leader in fuel cell cars, having produced both the ix35 SUV and the upcoming Nexo, due to launch in the UK early next year.

“This agreement is another example of Hyundai’s strong commitment to creating a more sustainable future whilst enhancing consumers’ lives with hydrogen-powered vehicles, the fastest way to a truly zero-emission world,” said Euisun Chung, Vice Chairman at Hyundai Motor Company.

“We are confident that the Hyundai Motor Group-Audi partnership will successfully demonstrate the vision and benefits of FCEVs to the global society.” 

Hyundai Mobis, the group's main hydrogen component manufacturer, can expand complete fuel cell powertrain production to "tens of thousands" of units per year at its Chungju facility, though at the moment capacity is just 3,000 annually. We estimate there to be around 100 fuel cell cars in the UK.

Read: Hyundai Nexo first UK drive

In addition to sharing components, Hyundai and Audi have expressed an intention to "spur innovation" in H2 tech, providing "more advanced mobility options" to customers.

A hydrogen fuel cell uses an electrochemical reaction to turn hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water. In the context of vehicle propulsion, this enables zero-emission mobility with long range and relatively fast refuelling times – a Hyundai Nexo can be fully 'recharged' from empty in under five minutes, with a range of around 500 miles per refill.

Challenges include the creation and distribution of hydrogen which, despite being the most abundant atom in the universe, can be expensive to obtain. Only a small number of hydrogen filling stations exist in the UK and, while the number is growing across Europe, the network is not yet comprehensive enough for widespread FCEV uptake.

Hydrogen can be produced in several different ways, including using algae, fermentation or 'gasification' from fossil fuels. The most practical method currently used in transport is electrolysis, a process by which renewable electricity is used to 'split' water into hydrogen and oxygen, normally on the same site as the fuel pump. 

Hyundai has identified regenerative hydrogen production and the establishment of hydrogen infrastructure as being key factors in the fuel's future market success.

The French Want World Supremacy in Hydrogen Energy PDF Print E-mail

In January , a French startup announced it would become the country's first company to start production of bicycles that run on hydrogen for use in corporate or municipal fleets. This came after the European country's government announced last summer its plans to end the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040, and become carbon neutral a decade later in an effort to follow the Paris climate agreement.

Last week, France took another step toward its green goal and announced it wants to become the world leader in hydrogen energy production to support its green plans for transportation. The minister of the environment Nicolas Hulot said the government will invest more than $100 million in the sector by 2019 as part its plans to develop hydrogen energy.

"Hydrogen can play an extremely important role in the power transition," Hulot said at a news conference at the launch of the plan.

According to the plan, the commercial possibilities for hydrogen are underutilized, in spite of the chemical element's potential to generate power in the 21st century. Yet hydrogen still poses scientific challenges, and the process of obtaining it is still expensive.

Hulot said his country is not afraid to dream big to develop environmentally friendly industries, and strives to have 5,200 hydrogen-powered commercial and heavy-goods vehicles – such as buses, trucks, etc. – on the road by 2023, as well as 100 service stations for the vehicles.

"Thanks to the progress of electrolysis technology, (hydrogen) can be produced in a carbon-free, cost-efficient way and contribute to the goals that France set for itself in terms of development of renewable energies, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, and reduction of fossil energy consumption," the plan reads.

Unlike with batteries, hydrogen power can be stored long-term and together with solar and wind power, this molecule will have an important part to play in countries keeping their green promises, said Philippe Boucly, president of the French association for hydrogen and fuel cells, during the conference.

France is only one of the several European countries that take the green challenge seriously. Other states on the continent have announced that they intend to reduce fossil fuel usage and look toward environmental friendly options. In Norway, for example, electric and hybrid car sales accounted for more than half of all new vehicle registrations in 2017.

Last year, the German automotive industry organization announced it wants to reduce the nitrogen oxide output by up to 30 percent, while mayors of Madrid, Oslo and Athens have said they will ban diesel vehicles from their city centers by 2025. According to a recent report on global hydrogen demand, the United States is expected to remain the world’s largest hydrogen market by volume, but China could grow the most throughout the year thanks to its commitment toward more firm clean fuel regulations.

The Struggle to Make Diesel-Guzzling Cargo Ships Greener PDF Print E-mail
imgPhoto: Martin Witte/AlamyThe Big Leagues: The Emma Maersk, one of the world’s largest container ships, is powered by a diesel engine. The ship can transport 11,000 containers with a crew of 13.

At the pier outside Amsterdam’s central train station, commuters stride aboard the IJveer 61. The squat ferry crisscrosses the waterfront, taking passengers from the city’s historic center to the borough of Noord. Beneath their feet, two electric motors propel the ferry through the gray-green waters, powered by 26 lithium-ion polymer batteries and a pair of diesel generators.

Hybrid vessels like the IJveer 61 are increasingly common in the Netherlands, where officials are pushing to limit toxic air pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the maritime sector. Patrol vessels and work ships are turning more to batteries and using less petroleum-based fuel; so are crane-carrying boats that pluck fallen bicycles from Amsterdam’s famous canals.

Some of these vessels recharge during off-hours, pulling from the harbor’s electric grid connection. In other boats, diesel generators recharge batteries as they run. As the harbor’s electricity infrastructure expands, more vessels could ditch diesel entirely, says Walter van der Pennen from EST-Floattech, the Dutch energy-storage company that oversaw installation of the IJveer 61’s series hybrid system.

“The next step is to move away from hybrids,” he tells me one drizzly afternoon from a café overlooking the waterway. “For all of the vessels here, it’s perfectly suitable to go full electric.”

Meanwhile, at a nearby shipyard, another company is building what it dubs the “Tesla ship”—an all-electric river barge, like a Model 3 for the sea. Its makers at Dutch manufacturer Port-Liner expect to complete five small barges and two large barges this year to edge out the area’s diesel-burning, soot-spewing versions.

These Dutch vessels mark the beginnings of a much larger energy transformation sweeping the world’s maritime shipping industry. As emissions climb and environmental policies strengthen, shipping companies and engineers are accelerating their pursuit of so-called zero-emissions technologies—a category that includes massive battery packs and fuel cells that run on hydrogen or ammonia. Hundreds of large cargo ships are also switching to liquefied natural gas, which produces less toxic air pollution than the typical maritime “bunker fuel” and is widely considered a stepping-stone on the path to full decarbonization.

“It’s been a journey for the shipping industry, but there’s now a broad understanding and agreement that there is a need to do something” about climate change, says Katharine Palmer, global sustainability manager at the shipping services company Lloyd’s Register. “Now it’s a case of working out what that ‘something’ is.”

Unlike vehicles and power plants, cargo ships remain conveniently out of sight to most of us. Yet shipping is the linchpin of our modern economy, moving about 90 percent of all globally traded goods, including T-shirts, bananas, and smartphones along with medicine, fuel, and even livestock. Around 93,000 container ships, oil tankers, bulk carriers, and other vessels now ply the world’s waterways, delivering some 10.3 billion metric tons of goods in 2016, according to United Nations trade statistics. That’s four times the cargo delivered in 1970.

shipping mapCreated by London-based data visualisation studio Kiln and the UCL Energy InstituteGlobal Goods: The world’s busiest maritime trade route is the path from Asia to North America. Other popular routes connect Asia to northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.

Nearly all cargo ships use diesel combustion engines to turn the propellers, plus diesel generators that power onboard lighting systems and communications equipment. Many vessels still burn heavy bunker fuel, a viscous, carbon-intensive petroleum product that’s left from the crude oil refining process.

As a result, maritime shipping contributes a sizable share—about 2 to 3 percent—of annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.N. body that regulates the industry. Left unchecked, however, that share could soar to 17 percent of global carbon emissions by 2050 as trade increases and other industries curtail their carbon footprints, the European Parliament [PDF] found in a 2015 report.

With pressure mounting to tackle climate change, the IMO has taken steps to limit emissions, including requiring newly constructed ships to meet energy efficiency guidelines. In April, regulators adopted a landmark agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by at least 50 percent by 2050 from 2008 levels. Yet to align with the Paris climate agreement’s goals of keeping global warming to “well below” 2 °C above preindustrial levels, the industry must go even further, slashing its emissions to zero by midcentury. That means all vessels, from small ferries to ocean-faring cargo ships, must adopt zero-emissions systems in the coming decades, according to a research consortium comprised of major shipping companies and academic institutes.

Many shipbuilders and owners still aren’t convinced that such an overhaul is possible. But Palmer and other researchers say the technologies already exist to achieve this clean-shipping transformation. The challenge now, she says, is “making those technologies economically feasible, as well as being able to scale them.”

To get a glimpse of shipping’s future, I visited Hydrogenics, one of the world’s largest hydrogen producers and fuel cell manufacturers, at its headquarters near Toronto.

Among shipping experts, hydrogen fuel cells are considered the front-runner for zero-emissions technologies on larger, long-distance ships. Briefly, fuel cells get their charge not by plugging into the wall, as batteries do, but from hydrogen. With onboard hydrogen storage, fuel cells can produce power for the duration of most trips. Today’s batteries, by contrast, can’t make it very far without stopping to charge—and that’s impossible if a ship is in the middle of the ocean.

Cargo ships are “just too power hungry, and the run times are too large,” Ryan Sookhoo, Hydrogenics’ director of business development, tells me. “When we look at the marine space, we see it as a natural adopter [of fuel cells]. There’s only certain technologies that will be able to deliver.”

Hydrogenics has installed its fuel cells in buses, trains, cars, a four-seater airplane, speedboats, and a research vessel in Turkey. In recent years, the company has partnered with the U.S. energy and transportation departments and Sandia National Laboratories to build and test a fuel cell system that could eventually propel a cargo ship.

Sookhoo leads me through the company’s cavernous research and development wing, out a back door, and into the rain. A bright-blue 20-foot shipping container sits in the parking lot, labeled “Clean Power” in white block letters.



Photos: Top: Hydrogenics; Bottom: ABBFuel Box: Hydrogenics hopes its fuel cell, which lives inside of a shipping container [top], can provide propulsion for cargo ships. When hydrogen gas flows into the cell, an anode breaks molecules within the gas into ions and electrons. Ions pass directly to the cathode, but electrons are blocked by a membrane and must first travel through a circuit, producing electricity. When the electrons finally reach the cathode, they reunite with ions to form water [bottom].


We step inside. In a back corner, four 30-kilowatt fuel cell modules are stacked on sliding shelves, like computer servers on a rack. Elsewhere in the container are 15 cylindrical tanks full of compressed hydrogen gas.

As it’s set up now, the blue container works as a generator. But unlike its diesel counterparts, it doesn’t emit any sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or carbon dioxide—only a little heat and water, which is vented out the container’s side like mist in a steam room.

Fuel cells have three key components: a negative post, or anode; a positive post, or cathode; and a polymer electrolyte membrane, an extremely thin material that resembles plastic kitchen wrap. Hydrogen gas arrives at the anode, where the molecules break down into positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons. The membrane allows the positive ions to pass through it into an electrolyte and thence to the cathode; the electrons flow from the anode through an outside circuit, producing current. Finally, at the cathode, the electrons returning from the circuit reunite with the hydrogen ions coming from the anode and, together with oxygen from the air, they form water.

In the container, the electricity produced by the fuel cell flows to a separate rack of power inverters, which change the direct current power to alternating current. That electricity then goes into a transformer, shaped like a chest freezer, and then over to a dozen power outlets on the external wall. A suitcase-size battery, charged by the fuel cell, runs the fans that cool the container and vent any hydrogen that leaks from the tanks.

Before returning to Canada, where the unit was built, this fuel cell system was tested in the Port of Honolulu. The Hawaiian shipping company Young Brothers used it to power refrigerated containers on shore. Eventually, Sookhoo says, Hydrogenics and Sandia plan to assemble these components inside a ship’s engine room to run electric motors that drive the propellers.

About two dozen early projects have shown that fuel cells are technically capable of powering and propelling vessels. The most prominent among them is the Viking Lady, a supply vessel for offshore rigs that launched in Copenhagen in 2009. Its molten carbonate fuel cell, with a power output of 330 kW, uses liquefied natural gas in lieu of hydrogen.

Wärtsilä Corp., the Finnish manufacturer that installed the Viking Lady’s hybrid system, has said its chief challenge was establishing industry-approved technical standards and safety procedures for the first-of-its-kind installation. (Separately, ExxonMobil is testing whether molten carbonate fuel cells could generate electricity from power plant emissions.)

While maritime fuel cells haven’t yet been deployed on a large, commercial scale, a recent Sandia study [PDF] suggests that oceangoing ships could feasibly operate using existing hydrogen fuel cell technologies. For instance, researchers studied the Emma Maersk, a mega–container ship with an 81-⁠MW diesel propulsion engine that routinely travels some 5,000 nautical miles (about 9,000 kilometers) from Malaysia to Egypt. Based on the available volume and mass of the ship’s engine and fuel rooms, they found the vessel could support enough fuel cell modules and hydrogen tanks to complete one of these long-distance trips before needing to refuel—on paper, at least.

Joseph W. Pratt, who coauthored the study, says he had expected to find that fuel cell systems simply wouldn’t work on bigger ships or on longer voyages. He thought that as the ship scaled up, the amount of required fuel cells, tanks, and storage equipment would become too heavy, or too voluminous, to fit within the vessel.

“The biggest surprise was that there wasn’t a limit,” Pratt recalls from San Francisco, where he recently founded Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine to provide fuel cell power systems and fueling logistics.

His team also studied batteries, which proved the better option for high-power vessels making short trips, such as ferries or yachts. If ships can recharge at point A and again at point B, they don’t need to carry hydrogen storage tanks, which saves space and weight. And batteries are less expensive than fuel cells.

The hybrid <i>IJveer 60</i> carries passengers and cars around Amsterdam along with its sister ferry, the <i>IJveer 61</i>.1/5

The hybrid IJveer 60 carries passengers and cars around Amsterdam along with its sister ferry, the IJveer 61Photo: EST-Floattach

Sookhoo says future zero-emissions cargo ships will likely use both technologies. Batteries can provide the initial spike of electricity that fires up the electric motor and puts the ship in motion—much as a car battery functions—while fuel cells will serve as the “range extender” that takes over as the battery winds down.

Given the potential, why aren’t more cargo shipbuilders ditching diesel and switching to fuel cells?

The technology is still prohibitively expensive, because fuel cells aren’t yet mass-produced. On a dollar-per-kilowatt-hour basis, the electricity cost from a fuel cell is roughly double or triple that from a diesel generator, Sookhoo estimates.

Second, hydrogen refueling stations are scarce and unevenly distributed around the world, whereas bunker fuel remains cheap and ubiquitous. For fuel-cell-powered freighters to succeed, ports will need to pipe in and store more hydrogen, and hydrogen production must ramp up dramatically.

Nearly all hydrogen produced today is made using an industrial process called steam-methane reforming, which causes the methane in natural gas to react with steam to create hydrogen and carbon dioxide. However, because natural-gas production and use results in greenhouse gases—methane itself is such a gas—the best way to make hydrogen for clean transportation is through electrolysis.

That process involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen by using electricity, ideally from renewable sources such as wind and solar power. Electrolysis facilities are growing in number, particularly within renewables-rich Europe, but not yet at the rate needed to supply tens of thousands of ships.

Finally, maritime authorities are only now starting to finalize the safety codes and design standards that will govern how fuel cell ships and fueling stations are built. Pilot projects can quickly adapt to rule changes, but large multimillion-dollar constructions cannot. This regulatory limbo also feeds into the wariness that many shipping companies and port operators feel about hydrogen as a fuel source.

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