Welcome 2021 and the World’s new hope for climate salvation: hydrogen.

Since developing the fundamental hydrogen property codes 15 years ago I’ve been waiting for hydrogen to have it’s moment. Despite all of the new press and excitement from folks suddenly interested in hydrogen, I’m here to say that we’re still going to be waiting many more years for hydrogen’s moment to finally arrive. This is evidenced by the many open questions being asked about the future hydrogen economy. We, as a community of stakeholders, still have not addressed many major challenges facing the hydrogen economy. If the ongoing pandemic and struggling vaccine rollout are any indication, the key limiter to a quick hydrogen economy will be system logistics, in many forms, and not necessarily the type of logistics you are thinking.

Most in America can recognize and associate the word logistics from delivery company adds but have little concept for what logistics actually means. In short, logistics is the engineering of how and when to move resources to where they are needed. The word’s origin is from the French ‘logis’ which translates to English as ‘lodgings’; temporary storage while enroute. Supermarkets and refrigerators are common examples of logistical solutions we’re very familiar with these days.

Our coupled energy and climate challenges may stem almost entirely from logistics. The electric grid is rapidly working to increase the logistics of intermittent renewable energy sources. The fossil fuel grid is rapidly working to decrease the emissions of carbon, the key atom that enables this system’s logistics. Between these two systemic challenges comes hydrogen, which has the potential to solve the challenges while bridging the gap between. In this series of posts I’m going to break down several of the logistical challenges facing the nascent hydrogen economy. This initial post starts with what’s driving the change: people. We’ll work into the technical logistics of hydrogen in future posts.

Hydrogen Logistics: The People Problem

People create both the needs and solutions for energy systems. If we don’t have the right people, with the right resources, in the right places, we’re not going to make it. As systems change scale quickly, people rapidly become a logistical challenge. Despite all of Academia existing to do the science and engineering while and for producing these people, there is little in the way of predictive science out there for determining how and when to change fields in key ways to address nascent challenges.

I have a tool I use for defining self-sustaining systems of people. It’s by no means scientific, but when used in a binning procedure tends to identify roles and gaps that a system needs filled in order to self-sustain. Applied to the hydrogen economy we see some key gaps. Let’s break it down by each of the bins in the system:

  1. Systems have many key and differentiable contributors that maintain the system in a harmonious balance. When changes to the system occur, the percentages of contribution from each of these groups changes to allow the system to persist. These groups include: Sustainers, Performers, Standards, Authority, and ultimately Fans. The challenge is finding the right balance at any given time for the system to sustain.
  2. Sustainers group together in communities of professionals with a common cause to advocate for and consider sustaining the future of the system. Typically sustainers have performed such that they have sufficient resources to group with others. Examples often include lobbying from organizations like the Hydrogen Council, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the Western States Hydrogen Alliance, and the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance; among others. Several of these groups have flexed considerable muscle in recent years to promote legislative policy agendas around hydrogen. We’re about to see this here in the US. What these groups haven’t done yet is focus their attention on the training pipeline here in Academia where a dramatic scale up is needed (especially with cryogenic hydrogen as it’s also needed in aerospace). We still don’t have a national center for electrofuels (Washington State could lead this). But I expect that shift to come once the legal barriers have been cleared, companies are ramping up, and will need many more highly trained and original thinking professionals.
  3. Performers originate technologies that can compete by all the numbers, including safety. This is the big shift with hydrogen that occurred over the last decade. The electrochemical compressor, generator, and storage technologies have matured rapidly, despite substantially less resources for research than other energy technologies. My friend Matthew Klippenstein was one of the first to clue me in that green hydrogen technology is on similar growth trajectories to wind and solar, just coming a decade later. Where more technology performance is needed is in the cost of hydrogen logistical solutions like refueling stations, where over 50% of the final cost of the entire hydrogen supply chain remains. For whatever reason, performers tend to focus on the power producers (e.g. fuel cells) at the expense of realizing what is necessary to sustain that production. My guess is at least 3-4 fuel cell researchers exist for every hydrogen storage and distribution researcher. Any fuel cell requires hydrogen storage and distribution. My guess is we’ll rapidly see a shift to address this nascent bottleneck.
  4. Standards are the foundation of performance. The new AIChE Center for Hydrogen Safety has been instrumental in developing modern codes and standards for hydrogen technology (such as NFPA 2016-2, and NFPA 2020-2). This organization is now moving into developing professional certification standards where Universities and training companies could play a big role going forward. Standards allow everyone to perform without the need for arbitrary authority. Hopefully we’ll have all of the systems setup just in the nick of time.
  5. Authority. It often takes an individual to drive change. Here in the US we (sadly) tend to be highly influenced by authoritarian figures. Who is the Elon Musk of hydrogen? Hopefully whoever does emerge won’t suffer from the narcissistic tendencies that often befall authoritarians. But Ayn Rand’s influence here in the states is strong. Whoever this person eventually is they will likely need to have a business. When we do have a hydrogen authority, will they know when to get out of the way? Will they be careful enough to not let their own interests hold the rest of us (i.e. Humanity) back?
  6. Fans love and look to authority. And fans matter. I can’t comment on social media platforms about hydrogen technology without an intellectual onslaught from the touchy battery electric groups that were unnecessarily polarized by Elon. Unless you’re the authority, fans really don’t care who you are. You’re either with them or against them. This is where we have a long ways to go as a community. Hydrogen technology can compete. But the advertising campaigns for hydrogen over the last decade that featured talking heads and the like were the opposite of help.

So if it’s not clear from the breakdown above, we still have a ways to go to solve the people logistics for the future hydrogen economy. We just had a lot of press in 2020, despite the pandemic. Welcome to all of the newcomers! We’re now seeing the backlash/pushback. It’s healthy and how systems balance and damp themselves. Just know that many of us are in this for the long haul.