- Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) has partnered with startup H2U Technologies to evaluate whether technology developed at Caltech will reduce the cost of green hydrogen production in commercial settings.
- By replacing rare earth metals used in conventional electrolysis with more readily available materials, H2U hopes to cut the cost of green hydrogen by half, according to an April announcement.
- Green hydrogen is one potential strategy identified by SoCalGas to help the company achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, according to Neil Navin, vice president, clean energy innovations for SoCalGas. However, he said the cost of hydrogen will have to drop by far more than half to become financially viable.
Green hydrogen is not just a key strategy for SoCalGas' 2045 decarbonization targets — Navin said he believes hydrogen, or at least some renewable fuel, is needed as a means of energy storage.
"For the economy to decarbonize, we need as much renewable wind and solar as possible. We also need batteries," Navin said. "Ultimately we do need clean molecules to support electrons to allow for the storage of excess renewable energy, when there is excess, and being able to deploy that in times of lack of wind or lack of solar power."
But to get there, Navin said, SoCalGas projects will require cutting the cost of green hydrogen to $1-$3 per kilogram. Currently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says producing green hydrogen by powering electrolysis through renewable energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen costs around $5-$6 per kilogram.
SoCalGas and California startup H2U hope to bridge that cost gap by commercializing electrolysis technology developed at Caltech's Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis with funding from the DOE.
Conventional electrolysis relies on a catalyst containing both platinum and iridium to begin the chemical reaction that splits water into its atomic components. The H2U electrolyzers to be piloted by SoCalGas this year do not contain either of these rare earth metals, making them substantially cheaper to produce, according to Nitin Vaish, head of product and strategy at H2U.
The platinum and iridium content today represent 5% of the total cost of most electrolyzers, Vaish said, and demand from other technological applications for these rare metals has caused their value to nearly triple in the last three months.
"It becomes a huge hurdle around cost," Vaish said.
By coupling the new catalyst technology with improved manufacturing techniques, Vaish said H2U hopes to reduce the cost of hydrogen to $3 per kg in the short-term, and has a long-term goal of a dollar or less.
Vaish said H2U aims to have a lab-scale electrolyzer up and running for showcase with SoCalGas within the next 12 months, and expected to have a pilot electrolyzer deployed and in the field within 18 months.
This strategy of eliminating rare and precious metals from the electrolsysis process is a popular line of research and development among numerous hydrogen-focused startups. Alternative materials research was the focus of two startups showcased at MIT earlier this year. On Friday, California-based tech developer BioSolar announced that it has changed its name to NewHydrogen, and would focus in the future on eliminating platinum and iridium from electrolyzer catalysts.
The potential competition may be intensifying, but Vaish said he believes the potential market for affordable electrolysis is large enough to share.
"We're talking about opportunities in the trillions of dollars in the next two to three decades," he said. "The opportunity is huge for a number of companies."