Its supporters promise us that it’s the automotive fuel of tomorrow, today: cleaner than gasoline, quicker to refuel than a battery pack, and — when combined with photovoltaic-powered electrolysis stations — completely emissions free.
But while automaker like Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are eager to get us behind the wheel of a hydrogen fuel cell car in the near future, claiming FCV superiority over other low and zero emission solutions like plug-in battery electric vehicles, very few places in the world have a robust hydrogen filling station infrastructure.
Which is why the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) and Hydrogen Education Foundation (HEF) have launched a $1 million prize fund called the H2 Refuel H-Prize, designed to develop and affordable small-scale hydrogen refilling systems for commercial and domestic use.
The goal? To develop a hydrogen refuelling system that can either produce hydrogen from natural gas or water electrolysis, enabling on-demand hydrogen generation and storage on a small, convenient, and cost-effective scale. Such a system would also help decentralize hydrogen generation and storage, negating the need for hydrogen to be transported across the nation in expensive pressurised trucks.
It would also dramatically reduce the costs associated with building a nationwide hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, considered by most to be the biggest challenge facing mass-adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
At the moment, the majority of the nine million tons of hydrogen produced every year in the U.S. is produced through an energy-intensive process called steam reforming or steam methane reforming (SMR) While the majority of hydrogen produced in the U.S. is used to industrially synthesise ammonia and other chemicals, some of the hydrogen produced through SMR is used to power hydrogen fuel cell cars, giving them a long, rather than no tailpipe emissions.
During SMR, methane is introduced to a super-heated steam at a temperature of between 700 and 1100 degrees Celsius in the presence of a metal-based catalyst (usually nickel). At these temperatures, the steam reacts with the methane to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Then, by gas-shifting with the carbon monoxide and water at a lower temperature, additional hydrogen can be recovered, producing carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Overall, the process is approximately 65-75 percent efficient.
In addition to the high energy temperatures involved, SMR isn’t suitable in its current form for use in smaller-scale applications, like home-based refuelling systems. However, alternative methods of refining natural gas to produce hydrogen or electrolysing water might be, hence the DoE’s competition.
Under the competition rules, the team will have two years to produce their competition entry. In year one, teams will be expected to register for the competition, find the necessary business and academic partners, find a site to install the system, and submit data and designs to the DoE’s panel of independent judges.
If selected as a finalist, the teams would then have seven months to build, install and test their systems before final assessment, with the winners being picked based on the successful demonstration that they can meet both technical and cost criteria as outlined in the H2 Refuel H-Prize guidelines.
Ultimately, the competition looks to find a way in the future in which people can refuel hydrogen fuel cell cars at home without having to visit a traditional gas station. But with the competition set to run for the next two years — and presumably any industrialisation of the technology taking many years beyond that — we think the dream of refuelling a hydrogen fuel cell car at home with the same ease an electric car can be refuelled is a long way from becoming reality.
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