While hydrogen “burns” clean, the methods to produce it have been anything but that. In a step towards a green hydrogen economy that complements other sustainable energy sources, a new technology promises to make hydrogen generation no more toxic “than a banana,” according to the inventors at Hydrostar USA.
The predominant industrial hydrogen process, steam methane reforming, uses natural gas or coal as a feedstock, and emits substantial amounts of CO2—a deal-breaking environmental tradeoff. The other conventional option, electrolysis, usually uses toxic potassium hydroxide as well as exotic materials and precious metals that drive up capital costs, operating costs and environmental hazards.
To build a greener electrolysis system, HydroStar drew upon prior experience restoring and coating hard surfaces like glass, natural stone and metal surfaces using non-polluting chemicals with no environmental impact. The company’s resulting hydrogen generation system uses a stainless-steel electrolyzer and a non-toxic electrolyte that the company calls B9.
Pursuing a Benign Electrolyte
“B9 is produced with food grade products that are USFDA approved for use as additives in the food we eat,” explains Darrel Smith, CEO. In early tests, the B9-based process has shown to generate a significant amount of pure (95% or better) hydrogen. According to the company:
- B9 is non-corrosive, capacitive and supra-conductive.
- B9 reacts in concert with the electro-magnetic field generated by the electrolysis device.
- B9 creates conductivity while auto-regulating the amperage and internal temperature of the electrolyzer – producing hydrogen in a consistent, monitored and predictable manner.
Finding the composition for B9 was a rigorous trial-and-error process. The company reviewed over 10,000 patents to zero in on the most promising direction. For example, they quickly dismissed technologies called Brown’s gas (HHO) due to its reputation as pseudo-science and its use of caustic electrolytes. They also rejected Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) electrolyzers which, although proven to work at relatively high efficiencies, require expensive materials and high capital costs.
After years of experiments, the team was able to send samples of its new electrolyte and output to a lab for testing. “We validated that we had an effective electrolysis system to produce hydrogen and oxygen,” says Smith. “We also proved our electrolyte met our objectives for being non-toxic, no more so than a banana.”
Through a business partner in Beijing, China, the company approached TsingHua University to continue testing various electrolyte configurations and system efficiencies. The additional testing confirmed that the Hydrostar technology was not only green but also potentially scalable and economical at industrial scale. According to Smith, “the projected cost per kilogram for our larger devices is around $3.50/kg.” This makes the system a potential competitor: one study from NREL, U.S. Geographic Analysis of the Cost of Hydrogen from Electrolysis, pegged base hydrogen costs from electrolysis as ranging from $3.74kg to $5.86/kg.
Hydrogen Hits the Road
Interestingly, the first application for the electrolyzer won’t be as an industrial gas source but as an “on-board” system to provide supplemental hydrogen to improve fuel combustion in vehicles. In 2013, Hydrostar conducted a test for this application using a 1993-era dump truck, with over 700,000 miles, operating in challenging conditions. The tests yielded up to 40% improvements in fuel efficiency. Since then the company has run similar tests on busses in Australia, construction vehicles in England and small delivery trucks in Indonesia.Smith explains that the Hydrostar system capital costs are about 25% to 35% of the cost of PEM technologies, so it can be cost effective even when the cost of excess power is at its lowest. That can open its clean, low-cost hydrogen production to a number of sustainable industries:
- Vehicle Refueling Stations: The technology competes favorably with fossil-fuel reforming without the carbon emissions.
- Onsite Ammonia Production: Ammonia production currently consumes nearly 50% of all hydrogen production globally. The Hydrostar technology can, in combination with a partner technology, generate ammonia onsite, using off-peak power. The ammonia can then be used for fertilizer, traded on exchanges, used in chemical processing or used with an ammonia engine to shave peak loads.
- Grid Load Balancing: At times when there is excess grid capacity, grid operators can generate hydrogen to maintain a steady load on their power systems—a growing opportunity as use of renewable technologies increase.
- Micro-Grid Balancing Via Demand Response: Many existing backup generation systems at hospitals and data centers use fuel cell technologies or other engines that can burn hydrogen as a supplement or primary fuel.