Podcast: How Hydrogen Will Replace Batteries

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Podcast: How Hydrogen Will Replace Batteries

In this episode, we discuss a breakthrough from an EPFL researcher which promises to finally make hydrogen a feasible source of energy by extracting it efficiently from ammonia.

In this episode, we discuss a breakthrough from an EPFL researcher which promises to finally make hydrogen a feasible source of energy by extracting it efficiently from ammonia. 

This podcast is sponsored by Mouser Electronics


(3:00) - Getting Hydrogen Out of Ammonia

This episode was brought to you by Mouser, our favorite place to get electronics parts for any project, whether it be a hobby at home or a prototype for work. Click HERE to learn more about the role of batteries and hydrogen fuel cells in the sustainable powered future that is right around the corner!

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What's going on party people? Welcome back to the NextByte podcast. And in this one, we're talking about ammonia. We're talking about hydrogen. We're talking about the future of clean energy. So, if you want to save this planet, if that's got you excited, then buckle up and let's get into it.

I'm Daniel, and I'm Farbod. And this is the NextByte Podcast. Every week, we explore interesting and impactful tech and engineering content from Wevolver.com and deliver it to you in bite sized episodes that are easy to understand, regardless of your background. 

Farbod: Alright people, like you heard, today it's all about hydrogen. But before we jump into today's article, let's talk about today's sponsor, Mouser Electronics. Now, by now you should know that Mouser is one of the world's biggest electronics suppliers, which means that they have great connections with both academia and industry, so they know a lot of cool things coming down the pipeline. And sometimes they write about it. They actually wrote an entire article about the future of the automotive world. They talk about connected cars. But more importantly, at least as it relates to this article, they talk about how future cars are going to be powered. Right now, we're seeing battery-powered vehicles, electric is the future. But then they dive into hydrogen fuel cells. They talk about how the size of batteries make it so for larger applications, for example, semi-trucks, it might be a lot more feasible to use hydrogen. But then they talk about the drawbacks with hydrogen, how storing it and distributing it is a pain. I don't know, it's just a good primer in terms of like the current state of the automotive world and what the future looks like, its limitations and the things that we should be working towards. Super relevant to what we're going to be talking about today. And yeah, I just enjoyed reading it. I think you might too. If you're interested, as always, you can find them in the show notes.

Daniel: That's what I was going to say. It's an awesome primer on what we're talking about today because today we're concerned a lot about the considerations of when you can and should use hydrogen and when the current constraints with hydrogen like storage, like distribution like production, et cetera, are make it really challenging to use hydrogen. And in today's ecosystem, let's say, so they do a good job of laying out where hydrogen is really, really effective and where it's not effective yet. And some of the not effective yet parts can be addressed by what we're talking about today, which is some research from EPFL, which focuses on getting high the titles, getting hydrogen out of ammonia, but I think a more descriptive way of saying it would be, using hydrogen for what it's best at and using ammonia for what it's best at and using a really interesting way to convert between hydrogen and ammonia so you can basically get the best of both worlds.

Farbod: Absolutely. So, let's take a step back real quick. We talked about the issues with hydrogen when talking about the Mouser article. So, what are those issues? Now we actually have hydrogen fuel cells like products from manufacturers like Toyota available right now, right? But they're not doing well. I think Toyota stopped manufacturing that model. They were refueling stations for hydrogen powered cars in California, the only ones in the United States, I believe, they're closing down as well. The big problem here is that for the state that hydrogen is most useful is in its liquid form. And in the liquid form, A, you have loss of hydrogen over time in whatever container you put it. So, you have to have really good engineering and it has to be very cold, I think minus 273.

Daniel: Minus 252 Celsius.

Farbod: 252 Celsius, very, very cold. So that requires a lot of energy just to keep it at that temperature and it's not easy to have the facilities that can operate at that temperature. And then of course you have the fact that it's explosive. So, transporting it, storing it is always going to be a pain. And that's one of the big reasons why it hasn't taken off in a large scale, despite being so promising because hydrogen is so abundant. It's literally everywhere. And if you use it as a fuel source, its byproduct is the most clean byproduct you could freaking ask for.

Daniel: It's water. So, I think truly part of what makes hydrogen so awesome for storing energy, the fact that it's got such high energy density and the molecule size is very, very small, is also what makes it really, really challenging to transport; really, really challenging to store. Like you mentioned, if you want to store it as a liquid, it's got to be at minus 253 Celsius, which is an insanely low temperature to try and maintain on a regular basis. It ends up, you end up spending a lot of energy trying to keep something that cold. Even if you want to use it in its gas form, I think you have to keep it somewhere in the order of like 350 to 700 times standard atmospheric pressure. So, it's like, that's a lot of pressure, right? There's a lot of mechanical engineering that goes into creating vessels that can handle that level of pressure. And then to try and transport gas under that pressure is also probably pretty, pretty challenging. So basically, part of what makes hydrogen so awesome is the fact that it's got such high energy density and it's such a small molecule. That's also the same reason that we can't transport it easily. It's also the same reason that we can't store it easily. So, if we want to be able to use it, we have to find a more convenient way of storing hydrogen, a more convenient way of transporting hydrogen. And so far, the brute force engineering ways of doing it, high temperature or very low pressure have turned out to be not that fruitful. I think kind of what the next frontier is here is using chemistry to try and stabilize the hydrogen in its form and find a way that we can transform hydrogen into another type of molecule that does much better at higher temperatures and does much better at lower temperatures. And ideally, we already have infrastructure associated with transporting and storing it. And that's kind of what this research is focused on is using hydrogen in the form of ammonia, which I think is NH3 minus.

Farbod: Correct. So, you have one nitrogen, three hydrogen.

Daniel: And it stabilizes this hydrogen situation to a point where you can transport it at nearly standard atmospheric pressure and you can keep it at standard or nearly standard atmospheric temperature. And fortunately enough, we've also got in many places, a lot of infrastructure associated with transporting and storing hydrogen or storing ammonia where hydrogen is lacking. So, the idea here is can we use the chemical advantages of ammonia that has a lot of hydrogen as a part of it? Use that as a way of kind of creating a hydrogen battery, so to speak, storing hydrogen as ammonia, using that as a way to transport the energy and then when you wanna discharge the energy that's in hydrogen, you somehow convert ammonia back into hydrogen in a way that, at least so far today, has proven to be pretty inefficient. This research team is focusing on finding a more efficient way to do that.

Farbod: Yeah, and one thing I wanna point out as a part of doing research for this episode, I came across an article from UPenn making the claim of why ammonia should be more focused on for clean energy sources. And they had a pretty nifty little chart that I wanna share. This is a comparison of energy in kilowatt hours per unit volume, liters, across batteries, hydrogen, and ammonia. So, they point out lithium-ion batteries, which is the most commonly used form of energy storage for electricity, for electric vehicles, even backup power to houses. You're looking at 2.45 megawatt hours per meter cubed. Then they go to liquefied hydrogen, which is what you and I have been talking about. And you're looking at 2.3 megawatt hours per meter cubed. So already, you know, significantly better.

Daniel: What's that, five to six times better?

Farbod: Pretty much. Then they have a couple of other numbers for not liquefied hydrogen, gas hydrogen at different temperatures and pressures, basically showing, you know, it's lower than liquefied hydrogen. I'm not gonna say that. But liquid ammonia is at 3.58 megawatt hours per meter cubed.

Daniel: Crazy.

Farbod: So, you have an even higher energy potential with the ammonia than you do with the liquefied hydrogen. However, like you mentioned, the trick there is actually unlocking that hydrogen from the ammonia. Now, how do you do that? Well, there is the typical conventional approach, which is heat heating it. You have to heat it up to 900 degrees Celsius to get the hydrogen atoms to separate from the nitrogen, which kind of similar to cooling.

Daniel: You end up spending a lot of energy trying to unlock this energy.

Farbod: So, at that point, the math doesn't really math the way you would want it to.

Daniel: Well, if you had a free unlimited 900. Did you say 900 Celsius? Yeah. If you had an unlimited free 900 Celsius heat source that you had abundant use of, you should probably just put water on it and use it for geothermal energy instead of using it as a way of splitting ammonia into hydrogen.

Farbod: Correct, correct. But the other form is what they refer to as cracking ammonia. They use some sort of catalyst to get these to split. Now, one of the ones that they mentioned was nickel.

Daniel: I was gonna say ruthenium.

Farbod: I didn't know about that one. But essentially, it's a lot of like, these processes tend to use rare earth materials, which tend to be, as the name implies, rare, which is one of the big problems we have with lithium-ion batteries, but also costly. So, you might be able to get them to split, but the costs associated with them, and if you can do it at scale, that's kind of questionable. So that's another shortcut. Another positive that I think is worth noting out before we move on is, I had mentioned that when you have liquefied hydrogen, you lose an X amount of it over time. That rate is significantly lower with ammonia. They, again, shout out to the folks at UPenn. They did a study over 360 days of storing liquefied hydrogen and comparing the original amount versus what was left at the end. I believe with the liquefied hydrogen, they hit zero by 300 within one year and on the ammonia, they had lost maybe five to 10%.

Daniel: Yeah, so over a year, you may lose five to 10% of the total ammonia that you had stored when it's in a liquid form. But if you compare that to hydrogen, within a year you lose all of the liquid hydrogen you stored.

Farbod: And that's despite best efforts to keep it cool in a good container, et cetera, et cetera.

Daniel: Think about you fill your tank with some hydrogen, right, for your car. And imagine just a couple of days later, your tank's already at 3 quarters. And a couple of days later after that, your tank's already at half. And you haven't even driven your car. Your money's literally disappearing into the air. Liquid ammonia still does that, but to a much lesser extent, 5% losses over the extent of an entire year, which is. I'm guessing it may even be less volatile than gas. I'm not sure about that, but I've definitely put gasoline in a gas tank before and come back a year later and I think it was empty.

Farbod: Yeah, that's, I mean, mentally that makes sense to me. We gotta fact check ourselves later though. But with that said, let's, I think, start talking about what's going on here at EPFL, right? So this PhD researcher came to EPFL because of this problem. They were inspired by the potential that hydrogen has. They were driven by trying to make it, again, scalable, widely available. And then they saw potential here within the catalyst to really make ammonia the deliverable method of making this energy use worldwide. So, this is the part that's a little disappointing. We don't actually have the sauce because they didn't tell us the sauce. Yeah. They're keeping the sauce under wraps.

Daniel: They're probably for good reason.

Farbod: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure a lot of people are after this, but they file for a patent. But from what we know, they have come up with a new catalyst that uses abundant raw materials and it cuts the cost of the state-of-the-art catalyst. From cracking, right? From using the cracking method. Not the heating approach, the cracking approach by 200 times.

Daniel: I mean, I don't want to say it sounds too good to be true.

Farbod: I hope it's true. And I want it to be true.

Daniel: I think that's why we feel like it's worth covering here.

Farbod: Exactly.

Daniel: We don't want to help perpetuate snake oil salesmen here.

Farbod: Absolutely.

Daniel: We truly think from a fundamental perspective, the engineering checks out. I'm hoping that they've found the correct catalyst here. In this case, that is truly 200 times cheaper. I looked up ruthenium, like I said, as one of the leading rare earth metals that they used to help crack the nitrogen from the hydrogen. And it costs like just less than half of what gold costs per ounce. So, I'm like- Pocket change. It's like almost worth its weight in gold. If you can do it 200 times cheaper than that with raw materials that aren't rare, that probably don't require questionably ethical methods of mining. This is a win, win, win, win, win, right? And we get more available energy for us. We get to unblock a lot of the challenges that we've seen with hydrogen. We get to do it using raw materials and don't make as much of an impact on the environment. We get to do it in a way that's a lot cheaper, more economical. And I think that's the most important one when it comes to these types of alternative energy adoption. We've seen this definitely in the renewable space, the main deciding factor for people, whether they switched to solar versus their current coal fired electricity or something like that. There's some extent you can sell people with greenwashing, like say it's better for the environment, or there's some extent you can sell people with convenience saying, oh, you can produce it at your own house, you don't have to rely on the grid. But the number one deciding factor for people in adoption, I would say like 80 to 90% of people is just cost. Is it competitive from a cost perspective? Does it pay itself back in an X number of years? If the payback period is competitive, if the cost versus the alternatives is competitive, I don't see any reason why hydrogen doesn't get adopted as our main energy storage method and our main fuel for things like hydrogen fuel cells or in this case, I guess, ammonia as the fuel, and then we help split it into hydrogen that's being used in a fuel cell. For me, the fact that this is 200 times cheaper than the current alternative is probably the biggest, most important lever for it out of everything that we've looked at today.

Farbod: I totally agree. And it looks like they identified the main bottleneck for this process. So whatever Dave created really addresses the main meat and potatoes of this. Now, in terms of the so what, I do want to point out, again, within the same UPenn study, they made a point of saying, hey, we got to look at the maximum return on energy invested for all these technologies. So, for batteries, right, we have to consider the materials required to actually like make the battery and then where the energy source is. And then at the end, when it's actually getting used, then we can calculate it took X amount of energy to get us here. And then now we're able to retrieve this much of it.

Daniel: And I think they also consider like in business terms, you would call it the TAM, like the total available market. Like, okay, so maybe we want to invest a lot of energy and resources into creating lithium-ion batteries, but uh-oh, we're actually relying on a very limited resource that helps unlock this and make this possible. For sure. The total amount of energy that can be stored in a lithium-ion battery is actually quite limited because the resources that we're using for it are quite limited.

Farbod: Correct, correct. What I was gonna say is in comparison to even liquefied hydrogen, this process of using ammonia as the vector beats it out because it's looking at about a 52% return on energy invested, which in comparison to lithium ion, liquefied hydrogen, pressurized hydrogen gas, it's much superior. So again, like you said, it seems to be a win-win-win-win. Like there's wins across the board if they were able to crack this.

Daniel: And then again, just from a pure molecular perspective, right? Hydrogen and nitrogen are among the most abundant molecules on planet earth. As opposed to using some sort of rare earth metal as the, the reason why we get this done. And then again, apparently the catalyst that's being used in this cracking it's abundant is apparently an abundant raw material. I can't wait. I think his name's Kevin. Kevin, tell us, tell us what this is when you can. We would love to do a follow-up episode. We love to interview on here when you can tell us what it is and how it works.

Farbod: Absolutely, absolutely. And you know what, quick plug, we have a newsletter. Kevin, one day, whenever you're ready, we'd love to write about what you're doing within our newsletter. And for folks that are listening, make sure you're signed up so when Kevin drops the sauce, you'll be able to enjoy it with the rest of us.

Daniel: And we're just starting, right? We just started a newsletter, but we love communicating interesting ideas in a way that's easy to understand. That's what this podcast is all about. And we're gonna do our darndest to make this the best newsletter you've ever read. So, we like to say now join now, you can be one of our founding readers. We'll find a way to recognize you for being a founding reader.

Farbod: We'll do our best for sure.

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: Quick summary before we wrap up. All right, so in terms of clean energy, batteries have just kind of been the way for electric cars, backup power to our houses, et cetera, et cetera. It makes a lot of sense. We can make it; it's got good storage capacity. But hydrogen fuel cells have been so promising, yet they fail to deliver on that promise because it's just so difficult to transport the liquefied hydrogen to store it because it has to be at such low temperatures, high pressures, very flammable, a lot of issues. The last ones that we had in the United States, I'm pretty sure, shut down in California. However, what if we didn't use hydrogen as the means in this current state to be the deliverable. What if we used ammonia as the precursor? Ammonia is stable, we can make it at scale, you know, with relatively little money, and it would allow us to process it at the very end where we need hydrogen's capabilities. Sounds like a great idea. The processes to do this have been very expensive, require a lot of heat, that's not great. Catalysts that can break up the nitrogen from the hydrogen molecules, require rare earth materials, that's not good. A researcher at EPFL has cracked the code, come up with a secret sauce that is he's not sharing with anyone just quite yet. He has a patent pending. It should crack the code and make it 200 times less expensive to do this process and potentially unblock the power of hydrogen once and for all for everyone.

Daniel: Nailed it.

Farbod: Try to, I do my best, what can I say? I think that's it, are we done here?

Daniel: Yeah, I think so. I just wanna mention again, appreciate if you've made it this far to the end of the episode. We love the people who are rocking with us. If you're somehow still here at the end of the episode, we'd appreciate if you could go to wherever you're listening, leave us a review. It's again, it's one of the best ways that you can help other people find us.

Farbod: For sure.

Daniel: Podcasts are incredibly hard to grow, but one of the best ways you can help us to grow is by sharing a review. It lets Apple or Spotify or wherever you're listening, let them know that we're delivering some good stuff and they should recommend it to other people. And if for whatever reason, you're one of the wonderful people who have already left us a review. We'd appreciate if you'd take the link to this episode, copy it, share it with a friend who you think would enjoy it. That's the second-best way you can help us to grow.

Farbod: Sounds great. Awesome. Folks, thank you so much for listening. And as always, we'll catch you in the next one.

Daniel: Peace.

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The Next Byte: We're two engineers on a mission to simplify complex science & technology, making it easy to understand. In each episode of our show, we dive into world-changing tech (such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, IoT, & much more), all while keeping it entertaining & engaging along the way.


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