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UCI Podcast: Solving climate change with clean hydrogen fuel

UCI and Orange County are at the forefront of the clean hydrogen revolution

January 27, 2021
UCI Podcast: Solving climate change with clean hydrogen fuel
Jack Brouwer, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UCI, discusses how hydrogen can help solve climate change on this episode of the UCI Podcast. Steve Zylius/UCI

Wind and solar energy, necessary as they are to reversing climate change, won’t be enough for society to completely wean itself from fossil fuels. Something else is needed for particularly energy-intensive sectors such as heavy duty trucking and to replace ubiquitous natural gas appliances.

Enter hydrogen.

Clean hydrogen fuel will be a crucial part of the renewable energy mix going forward, according to Jack Brouwer, a UCI professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and the director of both the National Fuel Cell Research Center and the Advanced Power and Energy Program. In this episode of the UCI Podcast, Brouwer discusses the unique advantages of hydrogen and why he believes it will soon be cheaper than gasoline.

In this episode:

Jack Brouwer, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and director of both the National Fuel Cell Research Center and the Advanced Power and Energy Program

National Fuel Cell Research Center, a UCI center devoted to hydrogen fuel cells

Advanced Power and Energy Program, a UCI program dedicated to researching and deploying efficient and sustainable energy sources

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Transcript

AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST

To fight climate change, we’ll need to kick our fossil fuel habit. But switching won’t be easy, especially for airplanes running on jet fuel, for heavy duty trucks burning diesel and for stovetops using gas in homes across California. And that’s where hydrogen comes in. How can we replace fossil fuels in these trickier instances? And how are researchers at UCI proving the possibilities of clean hydrogen?

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski and you’re listening to the UCI Podcast.

Today, I’m speaking with Jack Brouwer, who is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering here at UCI. He’ss also the director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, as well as the director of the Advanced Power and Energy Program, both of which are housed here at UCI.

Professor Brouwer, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

JACK BROUWER

Thank you for having me.

ORLOWSKI

Well so to work on climate change as a society, we’re going to need to dramatically lower carbon emissions and switch to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. So when you look at that picture, though, why is hydrogen so important for reducing carbon emissions?

BROUWER

Well, hydrogen has unique features as a fuel and energy storage technology that cannot be provided by any other known zero emissions alternative. So one of them is that it is very lightweight. And as a result, if we have heavy duty applications, like long haul trucks or ships or aircraft that need to be made zero emissions, hydrogen is much better than the alternative zero emissions technology of batteries, which are very heavy and they would limit, then, the payload that these kinds of applications can carry. 

ORLOWSKI

That sounds like a huge advantage over batteries, especially that lightweight component. Do you think there are certain uses for hydrogen where hydrogen has a special advantage?

BROUWER

Most definitely. When it comes to transportation applications, anything that requires rapid fueling, long range or heavy payload will prefer hydrogen as the zero emissions option. And then if you’re talking about energy storage, like storing all of the massive amount of sun and wind power that we need, batteries are probably better for short duration and small amounts of storage. So for example, if you just need to move some solar energy from noon to that evening, batteries should be used for that. But if you want to take solar power that is available in excess in the summer and deliver it to the community in December, January and February, that long duration storage can better be met by hydrogen. It’s more efficient and can actually last much longer than battery energy storage. You may know from your own experience with batteries, that if you leave a battery sitting for a while, it will self-discharge like your car. If you don’t drive it for a month, you could find a dead battery, not because the battery has a problem, it’s just a regular phenomenon of self-discharge that you can’t avoid with batteries.

ORLOWSKI

Wow. Yeah. And hydrogen does not lose its charge like that. It does not self-discharge.

BROUWER

Correct. It has a little bit of a chance for leakage, but we’ve been able to engineer systems that can very well contain hydrogen and have almost non-measurable leakage, it’s so slow.

ORLOWSKI

The potential for the use of hydrogen as a fuel has been discussed for a long time. Even back in 2003, President George W. Bush had a hydrogen fuel initiative. So what’s different now? Why is it taking a while for hydrogen to get off the ground? And why is now the moment?

BROUWER

Many of the features of hydrogen that we know can engender zero emissions in difficult applications were known back then, too. I think that the major difference today is that there are many jurisdictions around the world that have installed so much sun and wind power that they’re starting to realize the need for something like hydrogen. So, if you only need to get to, for example, 40 percent renewable content on your grid, then you don’t need seasonal storage of that energy. And you won’t have much curtailment of the sun and wind power, meaning you’re not throwing a lot of it away. But when you get up to 50, 60, 70 percent renewable content on the grid, you start to need some of these features where hydrogen shines.

ORLOWSKI

Yeah. Well, let’s dig a little bit into some of the science of how hydrogen is created. What is that process for hydrogen fuel? How is it created?

BROUWER

So today, most hydrogen is made from natural gas because it’s the cheapest primary source of energy. Of course that’s a fossil source. So that is not sustainable, nor will it be the main way we make hydrogen in the future. We already make about 5 percent of our hydrogen the way that is most important for our sustainable future. And that is by electrolyzing water. In other words, putting water and electricity into an electrolyzer to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen constituents. This electrolysis means of making hydrogen from sun wind and other zero carbon electricity is going to be the most dominant way that we will make hydrogen in the future. 

ORLOWSKI

Well, and UCI has been working on hydrogen and all of these issues for a long time. Can you tell us, when did UCI start working on hydrogen and what has been the focus?

BROUWER

So the National Fuel Cell Research Center was established by the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission in 1998. So 22 years ago, we started working here at UCI on hydrogen and fuel cell technology. Our focus initially was on stationary fuel cell technology and infrastructure required for enabling this zero emissions future. We pretty quickly adapted to incorporate some research on transportation applications and the hydrogen production, which is part of the infrastructure that’s going to be required for this. And then fairly recently, especially with support from Southern California Gas Company, we’ve been looking at how we could transform the gas system into something that will eventually convey 100 percent zero emissions, renewable hydrogen instead of the fossil gas that it carries today. And they, as a matter of fact, sponsored the U.S. first power-to-gas-to-power demonstration on our campus. It’s still the only place in the entire United States where we’ve actually taken renewable solar electricity, made hydrogen, injected it into a gas system and then reconverted it to electricity on our campus.

ORLOWSKI

Wow. And so in that system, the hydrogen was mixing with the gas?

BROUWER

Yes.

ORLOWSKI

And that that works okay. Are there any limitations to how much that can be done? 

BROUWER

So there are limitations to how much that can be done, but most studies think that you can have between 10 to 20 percent immediately in most natural gas systems. And this is something that we have studied on our own campus, testing various end use appliances, like stove tops, and fuel cells that are converting natural gas. If you mix hydrogen in them, can they still convert? How about water heaters or space heaters or things that we use gas for today? And we’ve found that you can operate probably up to 30 percent hydrogen immediately without having to invest in transforming too much of the infrastructure. That transition is very cheap in comparison to the alternative. Let me give you an example of a stove top. A gas stove top in a residence can be converted to a hydrogen-powered stove top by simply changing the hole size of the burner tip. That’s all you need to do is change a hole size of the burner tip. If you want it to go to the other zero emissions option, electricity, you have to buy a whole new range, a whole new stove top. It’s a completely different animal. And this is one of the reasons why delivering zero emissions energy, both via the grid and electricity and via the gas system and pipelines, is probably the only way that we can reasonably achieve completely zero emissions.

ORLOWSKI

Yeah. So it’s going to be a portfolio approach. There’s not a single silver bullet to getting to zero emissions. We need a variety of solutions.

BROUWER

Right. And the solutions complement one another. Sometimes we demand, especially in winter, for example, a lot of natural gas at the very same time that we demand a lot of electricity. If you try to meet all of those demands by electrifying all the residences, you would have to install more wires and bigger wires and bigger transformers in every neighborhood. That’s going to be very expensive, in comparison to transforming both of those to renewable electricity and renewable hydrogen delivery.

They also complement each other with regard to reliability. It’s much more reliable to have both a renewable fuel and renewable electricity delivered in society. And we experience that today, for example, when we have the public safety power shutoff events, and when we have wildfires that shut electric grids down, or when electric grids themselves cause fires because they become too overloaded. When these things happen, we depend upon underground delivery of natural gas, today. Of course, it’s going to have to be transformed to this renewable hydrogen vector. And when we put those together, we can envision a 100 percent renewable world that is also reliable.

ORLOWSKI

Well, let’s talk a little bit about transportation because UCI has a hydrogen fueling station, which has been on campus since 2003. What’s the story behind that station? And I think it’s expanding, right?

BROUWER

Correct. That station was the first public fueling station ever installed in the United States. We were able to get that fueling station installed due to the support of several entities, all of whom were interested in evaluating prototype fuel cell vehicles. And they included Toyota, the California Energy Commission, the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and others. And the key idea was before we knew how well these fuel cell vehicles would perform and before they were available publicly, we wanted to have people try them out. It also enabled us to fuel the only fuel cell bus that is in operation at a university in the United States. And that bus has the largest payload — it carry the most passengers — and it can go the longest distance of any of our zero emission buses. Because the rest of our buses are also zero emissions, using batteries.

That station is the most popular fueling station, okay, in the world. It dispenses more kilograms per day than any other hydrogen fueling station in the world. Now, I don’t think it’s going to be very much longer that it’s going to be the most popular one. And that’s because we’re getting more and more fueling stations everywhere, and there’s going to be competition for which is the biggest one. One of the reasons why, though, we have to upgrade our fueling station to incorporate more dispensers and more dispensing capability, which will be increased to over 1,200 kilograms per day from the 300 kilograms per day that we are currently able to dispense.

ORLOWSKI

Wow. Yeah, that’s really amazing. And it seems like Orange County, with UCI here, is becoming, or maybe already is, the center for innovation for hydrogen fuel. Because the Orange County Transportation Authority also debuted about, I think it was, 10 hydrogen fuel cell electric buses back in January. And they have their own fuel or hydrogen fueling station in Santa Ana as well. So do you see Orange County as the home for hydrogen technology for years to come?

BROUWER

So I think you are correct that Orange County is one of the first places that we started demonstrating these, right here on our UCI campus. First publicly available fueling station. First demonstration of fleets of fuel cell vehicles. It also now boasts the first commercial four-dispenser hydrogen fueling station, anywhere in the world. It’s on the corner of Ellis and Brookhurst Streets, in Fountain Valley. And that very station, like more than 20 other fueling stations in the state, has been built by an Orange County company, FirstElement Fuel. And that FirstElement Fuel company was founded by two UCI graduates. And, they are building more fueling stations at any other company in the world. Okay. So yeah, we have many reasons to think that Orange County has quite a big position in the hydrogen and the hydrogen future.

ORLOWSKI

Yeah, that’s incredible and a reason for us to be very proud as a university. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to restrict car sales to only zero emission vehicles by 2035 here in the state of California. So what role do you think that hydrogen is going to play in meeting that order?

BROUWER

So this is a wonderful thing because it will immediately have impacts in lowering both greenhouse gas emissions and criteria pollutant emissions. We too often forget how severe the health consequences and costs of air pollution are in our society. Many people talk about greenhouse gas emissions, but forget that we have a very bad societal impact associated with criteria pollutant emissions. And they are the most severe associated with industrial and heavy duty areas, which are forced to use these very large and higher polluting diesel engines. Okay. So I think that’s where hydrogen and fuel cell technology will shine.

I think hydrogen will also be a complement to battery energy technologies in the light duty sector because of infrastructure advantages that hydrogen has. Hydrogen starts out at a disadvantage compared to battery electric vehicles because everyone already has electricity in their home. And this allows battery electric vehicles to be charged at anyone’s home. This cannot be done with fuel cells. Fuel cells have to have a new purpose-built hydrogen fueling station to enable the initial market. So, fuel cells start out at a severe, I think, disadvantage compared to battery electrics because the hydrogen infrastructure is not ubiquitous, like the electric grid is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere. But in the end, hydrogen will have an advantage, if we want to go completely to zero emissions, like Gavin Newsom’s order. And this is what’s really exciting about it because we’re trying to go all the way to zero emissions.

If you want to go to all the way to zero emissions meeting, providing a zero emissions option to a large apartment complex is not possible with battery electric vehicles, because we can’t put new charging stations at every one of the parking spots that this apartment complex has without, like, tripling the electric infrastructure that goes into that apartment complex. However, one hydrogen fueling station on the corner would be able to serve that entire complex at a much lower cost than putting battery chargers at every location. So, when you envision, for example, you and your neighbor having a Tesla, that’s no problem. But the entire neighborhood adopting a Tesla leads to a severe increase in the demand, such that the electric grid can’t support it without a huge investment. 

ORLOWSKI

And I think that the point that you raised about the heavy duty vehicles and how so often the heavy duty diesel and similar pollutants are near low-income neighborhoods and less wealthy areas. So as we are talking about a just transition in climate, as we transition to renewable energies, hydrogen seems to offer both the transition to lower carbon or no carbon emissions and a more equitable and just transition that does not afflict low-income communities with pollution.

BROUWER

I totally agree. Batteries are important for that, too, but I think especially hydrogen is important for that because of its ability to decarbonize and make zero emissions in the difficult to electrify applications. These things like heavy industry, industry that needs not only high temperature heat, but a reducing agent that hydrogen can provide instead of the fossil natural gas. And heavy duty trucks and heavy duty trains and ships and these kinds of things, which we know we can make zero emissions with hydrogen, but which we can’t make with zero emissions with electricity and batteries directly.

ORLOWSKI

Well, so we talked a lot about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order and how that will help spur the hydrogen infrastructure, but are there any additional policies at either the statewide or the national level that you think need to be in place to really facilitate this transition?

BROUWER

Yes. There is a need for our California state agencies, and other jurisdictions around the world, to initially invest in the technology for making renewable hydrogen from sun and wind. You know, the way that we introduced solar and wind power and batteries for that matter in this state, and again, also in many other jurisdictions around the world, is we had a program for subsidizing them initially and then weaning them off of that subsidy. Secondly, we need to adopt policies that would enable them to be successful in the market. And then we also need, I think, stricter forcing functions, like Gov. Newsom’s executive order, to force certain sectors to adopt zero emissions. And I think that if you had a combination of this carrot and stick approach here in California, that would dramatically support hydrogen adoption.

And I want to mention one other thing. Many other places around the world, including most of the countries in Europe, Japan, China, Australia, all of these countries have realized that if we are to achieve zero emissions throughout all of society, we have to invest in hydrogen. And they’re already starting to do it. Germany agreed that they’re going to invest 9 billion euros. France is going to do about the same. Japan’s doing more than $10 billion. And, and these big investments are going go a long way, just like it did with solar, to bring the cost of these technologies down. And I think, according to our analyses, I am sure that within 10 years, that is by 2030, consistent with Gov. Newsom’s timeline, we are going to be able to make this renewable hydrogen cheaper than gasoline. If we adopt this kind of a policy framework and we invest in it, like we say, we’re going to, it will be cheaper than gasoline. And you know what that’s going to do? It’s going to automatically end the fossil fuel era.

ORLOWSKI

And solve climate change

BROUWER

And climate change will come along with it. And you don’t have to argue with people anymore about whether climate change is real or not. Now we can say, “Tough luck. It’s cheaper to do it this way. We’re going.”

ORLOWSKI

Well, I eagerly anticipate when that arrives and we can get the planet’s health back on track.

BROUWER

Absolutely.

ORLOWSKI

Well, Professor Brouwer, thank you so much for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

BROUWER

You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.