It takes a lot of power to leave the planet. That same power can move us around the planet in a cleaner, more efficient way.
In one of the greatest displays of technological ingenuity in the twentieth century, the Saturn V rocket launched humans to the moon in a dazzling roar of flame and light. It took millions of pounds of thrust to push the giant rocket past Earth’s gravity, and much of that thrust came from liquid hydrogen.
Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe and the lowest molecular weight of any known substance, burns with the extreme intensity necessary for rockets. Since it requires ultra-cold temperatures, NASA called the taming of liquid hydrogen in the 1950s one of its greatest achievements.
Now hydrogen fuel has come around in a much more grounded way. While it still plays an essential role in space exploration, the advent of advanced fuel cells and rapidly expanding, cheaper renewable energy have made hydrogen a future clean fuel of choice to drive many forms of transportation: trucks, airplanes, ships, and more.
Industry, governments, and the media have declared that the hydrogen economy’s time has come. The market for hydrogen mobility is expected to significantly grow over the coming decade, with some estimates as high as $70 billion by 2030, while hydrogen production costs fall.
Although the use of hydrogen to fuel vehicles is poised for expansion, obstacles could stymie rapid growth. The distribution, storage, and production of hydrogen fuel must ramp up for the full benefit of the clean and abundant fuel to be realized. Washington State University engineering researchers like Jacob Leachman and Ian Richardson (’11, ’17 PhD Mech. Eng.) have been tackling those barriers for years, with some significant achievements already.
The Pacific Northwest is especially poised to benefit, with the region’s low-cost and abundant renewable energy from hydropower and wind. Excess electricity can be converted to high-value hydrogen fuel.
“Washington state has the cleanest and cheapest clean energy in the world, and we need to do more to harness it and export it. That’s where hydrogen comes in,” says WSU mechanical engineer Dustin McLarty, one of the scientists who, along with entrepreneurs and industries, are working to build the hydrogen economy.
The once and future fuel
The largest early project with hydrogen fuel took place in the shadows. In 1956–58, the U.S. Air Force ran the supersecret and expensive Project Suntan to develop a hydrogen-powered airplane. The project expanded on research into very high-altitude, hydrogen-powered flight during the first half of the 1950s, by groups such as Lockheed Aircraft’s Skunk Works and United Aircraft. Although Suntan was canceled before completion, it led to development of the first hydrogen-fueled rocket engines.
NASA ran the space race on liquid hydrogen rockets. According to NASA historians, “Lack of Soviet liquid-hydrogen technology proved a serious handicap in the race of the two superpowers to the Moon.”
Even now, liquid hydrogen is the primary fuel for rockets, as the many WSU alumni involved in space programs can attest, such as Paul Laufman (’61 Mech. Eng.), who founded United Paradyne that provided liquid hydrogen to fuel the space shuttle, Iris Fujiura (’83 Eng.) previously at Lockheed Martin, and Frank Picha (’90 Mech. Eng., ’92 MBA) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. More recently, Ron Bliesner (’11, ’13 MS Elec. Eng.), Leachman’s first graduate student, works at Blue Origin.
However, in-depth research beyond rockets into the fuel, its storage, production, and other fundamental problems languished for many decades. It’s one of the things that spurred Leachman, associate professor of mechanical engineering, to pursue hydrogen research.
He had been interested in energy since a high school class introduced him to “that whole idea that there is energy in all things around us that we can extract and convert to something useful.” The inspiring teacher had Leachman and classmates light peanuts on fire to measure the energy needed to boil a cup of water. (It takes six peanuts.)
Leachman joined the WSU Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture in 2010 and started the Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab. It’s the only cryogenic hydrogen research laboratory in U.S. academia, and spans a broad range of technology advancement, including both basic science and applied tech like more efficient hydrogen liquefiers.
Back then, he didn’t find a lot of open minds about the work. Leachman recalls a friend high up in the U.S. Department of Energy told him, “We won’t build another hydrogen liquefier. You can’t make a fiscal case for hydrogen liquifiers.”
Since that time, there have been five announcements of major hydrogen liquefier projects in the United States because the price and demand of hydrogen has gone up due to the needs of materials handling companies.
“You had a case of an industry that had been resting on its laurels for a long time, and then, suddenly,” Leachman says as he snaps his fingers, “the world changed.”
It wasn’t that the ideas were all new. “The whole idea of a hydrogen electrolyzer is quite old,” Leachman says. “We just haven’t made enough to make them cost effective—until very recently.”
One way to make them more cost effective is to shrink them. “We’re making that technology even smaller and more compact so it fits in about an eight-foot-by-eight-foot cube. That is small enough to sit in a parking space and produce liquid hydrogen fuel,” Leachman says.
Another factor pushing electrofuels—energy storage created primarily from electricity and abundant resources like water—is the need for cleaner, greener energy to mitigate climate change, while returning value.
“It’s about economics because the cheapest energy in the world is solar and wind. And cheap energy drives economies,” says McLarty, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at Voiland College.
McLarty’s WSU laboratory, the Clean Energy Systems Integration Lab (CESI), seeks synergistic benefits between new technologies and existing infrastructure. That can lead to cleaner power generation and permit greater use of renewable energy sources, such as making hydrogen fuel with excess wind power.
In addition to other research areas, McLarty works on fuel cells at a very high temperature, around 600–800°F, the opposite of Leachman’s super-cold cryogenic work.
McLarty says a target application is a hydrogen supercharger that can be sited without any hydrogen infrastructure and without safety concerns. It would provide solid state hydrogen production and deliver fuel on demand into a vehicle fuel cell.
One challenge of hydrogen research is the relatively dull side of storage and distribution.
“People like to concentrate on what creates the energy—the engine, the fuel cell, the electric motor—rather than the thing that sustains it: the storage,” Leachman says. “In the U.S., there’s not a lot of research into making hydrogen fueling stations or storage tanks.”
It’s a gap that Leachman’s former graduate student Richardson, now a postdoctoral researcher at WSU, wants to bridge.
Richardson and others at the HYPER Lab designed a transportable hydrogen fueling station to help with the rollout of hydrogen vehicles in California. He led a team of ten graduate and undergraduate engineers on the design of a containerized fueling station based out of a 40-foot shipping container.
Now, Richardson and fellow postdoctoral researcher Patrick Adam (’17 PhD Mech. Eng.) have developed a new design for a lightweight liquid hydrogen fuel tank.
“We quickly realized if we were going to have a small liquid hydrogen tank, there are no small liquid hydrogen fueling stations on the market,” Richardson says. “The smallest one is an industrial plant that makes 1,000 kilograms a day. We’re talking about making 1–2 kilograms a day.”
Richardson and Adam plan to test the system at WSU this year and are working on commercializing the technology through their startup company, Protium.
WSU hydrogen research couldn’t come at a better time. Some studies suggest green hydrogen could overtake gas and coal as the most cost-effective energy before the end of the 2020s.
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, there are over $90 billion worth of hydrogen projects in the global pipeline, although not all of them are “green,” or produced from renewable energy. There are also dozens of green hydrogen electrolyzer projects in the works with a theoretical combined capacity of 50 gigawatts.
Spain aims to bring 4 gigawatts of hydrogen electrolyzers online by 2030. Saudi Arabia is building a green hydrogen facility capable of producing 650 tons of green hydrogen fuel a day.
Korea and Japan have had hydrogen investment and policy plans for a while, including encouraging hydrogen fuel cell vehicle production like the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo SUV.
Many other countries are also pursuing aggressive green hydrogen plans worth billions of dollars, including the United Kingdom, China, France, Norway, and especially Australia, where a massive 15 GW renewable project is under way to make hydrogen and ammonia.
Analysts at the Bank of America predict green hydrogen could make up 24 percent of our global energy needs by 2050.
Power from power
Although electrolysis is nothing new, as many of us might remember from high school chemistry classes, the potential of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen to create a valuable fuel is rapidly expanding.
One of the recent proponents is Douglas County Public Utility District in Wenatchee. It partnered with diesel engine manufacturer Cummins, one of the largest producers of electrolyzers in the United States, to build the largest proton exchange membrane electrolyzer in the country, a five-megawatt system.
In 2019, “Washington passed a bill allowing public utilities to generate hydrogen and sell it as a commodity,” Richardson says. “It is a game changer for the industry. The biggest cost in producing hydrogen is electricity. If you’re already producing the electricity, the cost of producing hydrogen becomes competitive with the cost of gasoline.”
It also benefits hydropower producers to use the excess electricity during wet seasons. The same holds true for wind power, which can potentially direct electricity that won’t make it to the grid to make valuable hydrogen.
“It’s worth more as a fuel for transportation. Hydrogen can be 40 times more valuable than the electricity itself. The prices people are paying for liquid hydrogen are through the roof,” Leachman says.
McLarty notes that storing energy for any length of time also boosts hydrogen above batteries. “There’s not enough lithium in the world to do what we want to do with batteries,” he says. “They’re terrific when integrating with solar to get from one day to the next. But when you intend to store energy for any period of time, their efficiency plummets.
“If you wanted to shift 10 percent of the state of Washington’s energy from the wet season, with all the extra hydropower, to the dry season, you would need every battery factory in the world and every battery they make for the next 35 years.”
Planes, trains, and automobiles
Once green hydrogen is produced from renewable sources, it’s ready to charge up fuel cells for any number of uses. And the demand is heading straight up, particularly for transportation.
Almost all current demand is being driven by warehouses at Walmart, Amazon, and others. “Thirty percent of all the groceries in the U.S. are moved with fuel cell forklifts fueled by liquid hydrogen,” Leachman says.
Any time material is moved—whether it be via trains, ships, earth movers, or semi trucks—the energy density of hydrogen fuel makes sense. “When it comes to realistic long-haul trucking, batteries are out. You’d be hauling more batteries than goods,” says McLarty.
Recently, German auto giant Daimler, which has worked with hydrogen for decades, announced a long-haul semi truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells with a range of 600 miles per fueling.
Another place where hydrogen fuel cells make sense: farms.
“I think a combine is one of the best uses of fuel cells because it drops the temperature the fuel cell is running at. Reducing the heat from internal combustion engines is one of the best ways to reduce fires on farms,” says Leachman.
Farms could also generate hydrogen fuel, if smaller scale production and storage facilities like those being developed at WSU are available.
One of the most successful uses in the hydrogen economy is where “you have a lot of vehicles moving really quickly 24-7,” Leachman says. “That’s when the rapid recharge time of a hydrogen fuel cell makes a difference. It’s like the difference between dial-up and broadband.”
In hub and spoke models like ports, where goods come in and go out at a rapid pace, the quick recharging of vehicles can be very effective. In Europe, Asia, and California, seaports are already implementing the technology. The Port of Long Beach, the second-busiest port in the United States, already has a fleet of ten hydrogen-powered Kenworths, built by Bellevue-based PACCAR, and a hydrogen liquefier to refuel trucks, cranes, forklifts, and ships. Multiple ports along the I-5 corridor are looking at doing something similar.
High above, aviation is also ripe for hydrogen fuel due to its low weight.
“The mass part is particularly important for aviation. That’s one of the reasons you see so much excitement around liquid hydrogen for aircraft. It’s three times higher energy per weight than any other fuel,” says Leachman.
European aerospace company Airbus revealed three zero-emission, hydrogen-fueled aircraft last September. The company is shooting for the early 2030s for the planes.
“Airplanes make sense, especially when they’re on the ground,” Richardson says. “They have to run the engines as they’re taxiing just to keep the cabin comfortable. With short flights, they spend more time on the ground than in the air. So they burn a lot of fuel just to keep the air conditioning and lights on.”
In Washington state, Boeing is already testing hydrogen fuel with WSU by including it in tests of their unmanned aircraft (UAVs) and drones. Once they get flight hours in the air and build up a culture of safety, then they could continue to phase up.
Leachman and Richardson work with Boeing UAV-making subsidiary Insitu that makes drones for civilian and military applications. The researchers flew the drone on gaseous hydrogen and tested liquid hydrogen tanks on the ground. WSU built the hydrogen liquefier that can be moved anywhere the fuel is needed.
The WSU researchers already have proven success with UAVs and hydrogen. The HYPER Lab flew drones powered by hydrogen fuel in 2014. Current projects with Insitu expands on that work, and the research team had successful tests of a full fueling system last summer.
“It’s a different design concept meant for a fill and fly, as opposed to traditional liquid hydrogen tanks where you just fill them up and you leave them for days or months until you are ready to use it,” Richardson says. “This is the new way hydrogen is being used in vehicles, whether those are drones, air taxis, or ground vehicles.”
The U.S. Army is funding much of the UAV research, but civilian drones—with their 8–10 hour flight time—could also do work like inspecting rail lines and pipelines, notes Richardson. They could also provide real-time imaging of wildfires, giving information to first responders and firefighters to help make decisions. They might assist with package delivery, or hazardous work like inspecting dams, tall buildings, and cell towers.
On the water, maritime uses of hydrogen fuel could be adopted even sooner, also thanks to the fuel’s low density and absence of emissions.
“One of the early targets gaining steam is commercial shipping. It wasn’t seen as an early market because these folks pay the least for energy than anybody in the world,” McLarty says. “They buy the bunker crude, the stuff no one else wants.”
McLarty notes that companies are looking at ships with a 40-year lifespan and need fuel for the future. They also need consistent, low-emission fuels due to varying regulations at ports around the world.
Another promising area: offshore wind production.
“The size of these offshore turbines is staggering. The base of each tower can have a chemical plant, where you have a tender ship that comes and pulls that fuel off. That tender ship pulls up next to a cargo ship steaming across the ocean, refuels it on the fly, and goes back and gets another tank of fuel from the wind turbines,” McLarty says.
The hydrogen could fuel ships in a number of ways: liquid hydrogen at cryogenic temperatures, ammonia produced by attaching a nitrogen molecule, or the benzene-cyclohexene cycle. Benzene is a hydrocarbon that can absorb extra hydrogen and become cyclohexene. Then a little heat releases that hydrogen on the boat and it turns back to benzene. In that case, the tender offloads one fuel and reloads the charged fuel.
The emissions-free ship Energy Observer is sailing around the world as a proof of concept. It looks like something out of Waterworld, Leachman says, and uses a combination of wind and solar power, then makes and stores hydrogen in pontoons for use during storms and cloudy days.
The Northwest connection
In Washington state, Tacoma Power and the Port of Tacoma announced an electrofuel tariff pilot project with specific rates for producing hydrogen that can run equipment and possibly ships coming to the port.
“Washington is home to manufacturers of transportation equipment in almost all sectors,” Leachman says. For example, he points to All American Marine in Bellingham and its first hydrogen fuel cell ferry for San Francisco Bay, Boeing’s aviation tests, and PACCAR, which took a Kenworth hydrogen truck to the top of Pikes Peak and back. In the booming material handling sector, Plug Power has its west coast office in Spokane.
The rapid growth is ripe for entrepreneurs, such as Richardson and Adam’s company Protium. Richardson’s postdoctoral fellowship was funded by the Washington Research Foundation, which aims to commercialize technologies out of state universities.
Protium is looking at developing a smaller scale liquid hydrogen tank, with a heat exchanger built into the walls of the tank to regulate temperatures. They also work on a refueling station the size of a shipping container.
Richardson explains that the refueler “takes in water, purifies it, and puts it in an electrolyzer which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. We cool that hydrogen down with a cryo-cooler, basically a souped-up refrigeration cycle, then we liquefy that in a vacuum-jacketed dewar that’s commercially available.” All safety systems are built into the equipment.
One innovation from Adam is a 3D-printed tank. He found a polymer that can survive at the temperatures of very cold cryogenic hydrogen.
“If you talk to people in this industry, they think we’re nuts and that there’s no way you’re going to find a polymer that can hold liquid hydrogen,” Richardson says. “But so far, it’s holding just fine” at the small scale.
Moving hydrogen tech into the market is exactly what we need, Leachman says.
“The University isn’t about making money from technology. We’re supposed to supply the pitchforks and shovels and give direction and a way to go,” he says.
Another key part of the HYPER and CESI labs is educating students to work in industries and further hydrogen research. “We need a lot of students trained up in this area. There haven’t been a lot of people educated in cryogenics and hydrogen in the U.S.,” Leachman says.
He has close to 30 undergraduates and 9 graduate fellows working in the HYPER Lab. McLarty’s CESI lab also provides research opportunities for undergraduates and graduates interested in renewable energy and future fuels.
The Northwest, Leachman says, is primed for the industry.
“We produce double the electricity we need,” he says. “We now have this incredible potential to generate hydrogen, a renewable energy that keeps the money in our region and reduces the amount of money to import dirtier energy products like fossil fuels.
“Our clean energy future can and will come in many ways. Putting all of your eggs in one basket, that’s never been conducive to resilience long term.”
Click above image for an expanded infographic. Click here for a PDF version.
Podcast: The future of hydrogen fuel, plus how to commercialize hydrogen fuel
Hydrogen fuel research projects at WSU
Hydrogen blog (Leachman)
Fact sheets and articles about hydrogen fuel
Hydrogen, Scaling Up (McKinsey report)
Dreams of green energy take flight (mobile hydrogen generating unit built by the HYPER Lab, WSU Foundation, May 18, 2021)