Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab jacob.leachman

You don’t know Jack.

Many seem to think my student mentoring style is non-traditional. At least the students tell me it’s different from other faculty. It’s because you don’t know Jack. My dad Jack. Mentor numero uno. My original mentor. Get to know Jack and you’ll start to understand.

Somehow, and I still don’t have this figured out, my dad has reliably produced outstanding teachers and mentors in his wake. His little sister Laurie spent her career as a 5th grade teacher in one of Lewiston’s tougher areas. His little brother Tom is the head science teacher at Lewiston High School. Tom and I share the same space in my dad’s brain as he’s interchanged our names my entire life. I knew before coming to college that teaching and coaching was a skill that somehow came naturally to me. As best as I can tell, my dad’s the common link in this. Much like him, I realized early on that my role in life was mentoring and coaching people to achieve heights and accomplishments that I never would.

Jack has always been a brilliant mechanic. Early in life one of his mentors gave him a 1956 civilian CJ5 Jeep that was bright red/orange. He spent considerable hours working and maintaining this Jeep. It’s a likely reason he went to Lewis-Clark State College and became an auto parts salesman and technician for General Motors. When I was a kid, I’d sit outside the garage and build Lego cars while my dad assembled a 1955 Chevrolet 2-door Sedan from boxes of parts — that eventually became that same bright red/orange color. I’d get to help turn a wrench from time to time, or swap a starter for instance, or help him bench press a transmission into place… One evening, my dad decided the small block 350 engine in our Chevrolet Blazer was not running quite right, he had another engine sitting on a block in the garage. He swapped the engines entirely and we drove 2 hours to go hunting at 4 am that morning.

No surprise, when it came time for me to learn to drive. My dad bought me a truck — a 1968 Chevy long-box step side — that didn’t work. “It’s up to you to make it run,” he said. And it was. He’d help me if I got stuck. But it was mine to do as I wanted. Onetime in college I the oil filter got stuck and our oil filter wrench was being borrowed. He improvised a strap wrench from an old seat belt. By that time I’d had statics and machine design and argued that the wrench would not torque the filter. He laughed at me and said to try it anyways and said, “I’ve never done this before.” It worked. Somehow the truck ended up that same bright red/orange color, although now faded. We still have it. It’s not a stretch to say that rainbows appear and everyone smiles when they see it.Jack is never one to delegate understanding, especially when it comes to working with machines. “Why would I pay someone to fix something that I can figure out for myself?” This was a value we applied to designing and fixing up most things around our house growing up. By the time I was ready to go to college, I had enough experiences trying to fix my own designs and those of others that I knew mechanical engineering was a good fit. Midway through college I realized that being a professor merged the natural skills with coaching and this love for design.

Part way through my time in high school, my dad became a setup technician at Blount, then ATK, and now Vista Outdoors, the largest bullet manufacturing plant in North America. In this role he maintained the smooth operation of bullet presses — as well as working directly with engineers. He’d come home extremely frustrated often with statements along the lines of, “An engineer that’s never worked on my machines came out of his office and told me I needed to do something that will never work. It’s because they don’t know the machines or what I have to do to fix them.” I’ve learned through the years that there are a certain class of people that accurately from across the room, just by feeling the change in vibration of the floor or a small change in acoustics imperceptible to most, know that a machine will have a specific issue within the next 5 minutes. The classic challenge of an engineer is trying to convince that person that they can help them. No surprise, my dad was often working with engineering teams to help them with new tough equipment changes.

But my Dad’s real strength is not what he could do, but it was what he didn’t do. I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about the dangerous close calls of our youth — I struggled to think up examples when we were in harms way. Given all of the whitewater rafting, hiking, camping, and traveling we did my dad has an incredible safety record. What’s more, he didn’t take the responsibility of my decisions and actions away from me. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but you need to think this through, because if X happens then Y will happen.” This is a skill that I work so hard to apply to my graduate students. They want me to free them of the burden of their decision responsibilities, not knowing how this will set them back later in life. It’s their time to start making decisions and leading their own lives. The university always wants to put my name behind grants that students pitch to win — it’s their project, they are the players. I’m merely helping to facilitate.

My Dad was confident in himself to let me lead, early in life. He’d done the hard work early to be sure I was ready to lead. An example was getting me in the gym with his friends at 5 am during the summers as early as 5th grade — somehow knowing I’d have a chance at college through football. When it worked out that I became a star in high school football — it was my own success to celebrate. My parents never waited around after games to congratulate me or coach or critique — it was my time, my success. They had no problem hearing stories from me about the dance, the party, or whatever they wanted. Because I trusted them to let me be.

When I defended my Master’s Thesis that ended up winning the top Master’s Thesis Award in Western North America across all disciplines, my mom and dad were in the room. My dad’s shoes were covered with grass clippings from mowing the lawn right before driving up. Which says it all — the pomp and circumstance — the prestige — none of it matters compared to doing things. When it was done my advisor, Richard T Jacobsen, who had been the Dean at Idaho for nearly a decade shook my dad’s hand and congratulated him for doing a heck of a job with me. I remember my dad saying, “he did it all himself.”

Thanks Dad!


Despite the statistical ‘evidence’

In high-school I was too light (250 pounds), too week (280 pound bench), too slow (5.5 s 40 yard time) to be a ‘good’ offensive line football player — but somehow managed to lead a team to the 5A state title game, set school rushing records, and land a D1 college scholarship to play for Tom Cable, an offensive-line guru.

In college my SAT scores were too low (1240/1600), GPA too low (3.26/4), GRE scores too low (720/800 quantitative), qualifier scores too low, to be a ‘good’ researcher in mechanical engineering — but somehow managed to win the Outstanding Senior Award in ME at Idaho and follow it up with the top Masters Thesis across all disciplines in Western North America for 2008.

In my career as a Professor my publication count is too low, my H-index too low (8), my funding expenditures too low, to be a ‘good’ faculty member in mechanical engineering — one of my big hit ideas looked bad in preliminary calculations, in multiple ways, everyone lost confidence until the experiments started showing otherwise.

Statistics don’t lie — I really had/have those metrics.

The problem almost always is not in the statistics/metrics themselves but is in what we decide the statistics/metrics mean. In high-school I focused on conditioning to finish the end of games, not on one-time lifts. In college I focused on building sustaining communities and clubs (led the engineering hall to 3 consecutive hall of the year awards) and didn’t study for placement exams, which I thought were pointless. In my current job I focus on training exceptional students to go into leading jobs in cryogenics and aerospace, everything else is secondary.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what this means:

  1. Work hard, every day, on something that motivates your principles, values, and convictions — you’ll eventually have value to realize.
  2. Don’t pay attention to the secondary critics and statistics — as long as the ones that matter are still engaged.
  3. Focus on the force multipliers that matter in the end — which are much harder to measure, quantify, and game.

Now my challenge, and curse, is seeing through the wonderful statistics of all the students to not miss another student like me.

Thanks to everyone that has believed and had confidence in me, despite the statistical ‘evidence’.

(Somewhere J. Edwards Deming is rolling in his grave — “Trust in God, everyone else must bring data.” He should’ve said “everything” instead of “everyone” — it’s much easier to quantify limits on physical objects to manufacture than human beings.”)

Never _____ what a student should

1. Never teach what a student should — stop holding office hours, hold group study instead; stop pontificating, assign them a forum post/essay instead; stop answering, start questioning.

2. Never present what a student should — stop lead authoring, they need to learn to write; stop presenting at conferences, they need to learn to talk; stop pitching to businesses, they need to reel ’em in.

3. Never design what a student should — stop estimating, they need to learn the “back of the envelope”; stop questioning clients, they need to know when to speak up; stop calling suppliers, they need to know who to talk to.

Quit getting in the way.

I will not _________ so that you can.

Credit to Dan Bukvich who famously quipped, “I will not emote so that you can.”


Authority, feedback loops, and the setback

One of the characteristics of the HYPER lab community and alumni is authority and ownership over projects. I work very hard to fulfill the role of coach, a.k.a. service leadership, and to not take ownership of experiments away from the people actually doing the work. This is a fine balance and requires lab wide standards to ensure safety and performance. This scaffolding is a key reason great students keep coming to the lab — freedom to own a difficult project with the necessary coaching and resources to succeed. This is very different from authoritarian micro-managing environments typical of business and academia in the US. Hence, the lab community has to continually practice to prepare our members to handle situations when dealing with authority.

Here are two common situations and how to handle them:

“We had a setback”

Having to tell your boss that something went wrong is always tough, and it happens to everyone that is working on the hard problems we need solved. How you handle this though is the difference between becoming the golden child and the scapegoat (all narcissistic authoritarians have both a scapegoat and golden child). It’s critical to NEVER use the default response of asking your boss “what do you want me to do next?”. This is tempting as it frees you from the responsibility of making a decision, but your boss probably already has enough of this.

Always propose the three best options weighted based on your justified preference. “We had a setback with the ____. I see three ways of handling this: 1…, 2…., 3……, I’m leaning towards ____ because _____.” Then wait for your boss to weigh in. This allows your authoritarian boss to still feel like the boss and being involved in your work WITHOUT assuming the responsibility of doing your work. Your boss is not paying you engineering salary for them to tell you what to do. In the worst case scenario, and all three of your solutions are failures, what will your boss have to do? Tell you what to do next. Don’t start this conversation by failing yourself. Do your best to impress and at the very least set the stage for good coaching and feedback.

“Feedback Received”

Another common problem is how you receive coaching/feedback/direction from a boss. Anybody can say “thanks for the feedback” as it is easy, however this response does not return the favor of your boss’ valuable time spent working on you. Even worse, simply saying, “your feedback made a big difference” could come across as disingenuous. If your boss is worried about continuous improvement and systemic thinking, then they hopefully provide feedback via Strengths, Improvements, and Insights (SIIs). Reciprocating this is important. Dr. Chuck realized that it helps to go in reverse order to communicate that the feedback was correctly received.

For example, Boss says, “Your report has an excellent data analysis for the experiment (strength). However, the results section did not emphasize the sensitivity of the key variable (Improvement). If you follow this ASTM standard on sensitivity analysis you will naturally add a nice summary and important reference (Insight).” A great response to this would be, “Thanks! I was not aware of this ASTM standard (Insight). I had difficulties quantify the key variable sensitivity (Improvement). With the sensitivity issue solved the report should be complete and ready for submission later today (strength).”

Authority versus Service Leadership

A hallmark of the “Toyota Way” of continuous improvement is the ability of a boss to go down and work the assembly line with other workers. This empathic place-taking is key to actually understanding the problems faced by the community as we endeavor to continuously improve performance, and it’s only possible with a highly scaffolded and error-proofed work-flow. Lean has been slow to permeate in the US for a reason — our culture is obsessed with the idea of the cowboy-champion. Nearly everything about our culture/system is geared toward building these individuals, often at the expense of a sustaining community of empowered individuals. Remember our society’s view of what a “leader” is may not be what best helps your team to succeed. It’s one of the reasons I followed the Boeing lead and renamed the role of “leader” to that of liaison. Authority is important, but don’t fool yourself — sustaining communities are built upon independent mastery of the standards and rules of an organization. And to build that community, it takes a community.

Common Cryogenic Copper Confusions

I made these mistakes when I was learning. Just about every student in my lab has made them too. It’s all too common to have cryogenic copper confusion. It ends here.

The root of the confusion lies in the heat transfer promised land, as illustrated by the below chart of thermal conductivity of copper at cryogenic temperatures. An even better comparison than this chart is in Jack Ekin’s FANTASTIC book that is absolutely required reading for my lab: “Experimental Techniques for Low Temperature Measurement” Jack is so wonderful he’s even posted the figures openly available for people to access on-line and his thermal conductivity chart is here:

Historical NBS measurements of copper thermal conductivity.

Yes you see that right. The thermal conductivity of copper varies two orders of magnitude at cryogenic temperatures. If you look at the figure in the link above from Jack Ekin’s book, RRR=2000 copper has a thermal conductivity at 10 K on par with the highest of diamond and sapphire. This thermal conductivity is a full 6!! orders of magnitude higher than some plastics. To put that into reference if you had a 10 K temperature gradient across a plastic bus bar, you’d have a 0.00001 K gradient with RRR=2000 copper. — The heat transfer promised land — and, like so many promised lands, has led many young cryogenicists to the school of hard knocks.

C110, C101, C102, ETP, OFHC, RRR???

All copper is not the same. If you go to common material suppliers your choices are typically C110, a.k.a. electrolytic tough pitch (ETP), or C101, a.k.a. oxygen free high-purity copper (OFHC). Looking  back on the graph, both ETP and OFHC are listed next to a RRR of 50, and a full two orders of magnitude lower than RRR=2000 copper. Most copper scrap or tubing that’s sat around should probably be assumed RRR=25 or less. RRR stands for residual resistance ratio and is measured via the ratio of electrical resistance at 295 K versus immersed in liquid helium at 4 K. Electrical resistance depends primarily on purity and granularity of the sample. So if you by OFHC and carefully anneal it many times, you too can realize a RRR of 2000. But beware.

Once you remove all impurities and anneal copper to a RRR=2000, you’ve removed everything that made it strong. You’ve basically got a bar of soft material that behaves similar to lead or pure silver that you could scratch with your fingernail. This very high purity state is very attractive to impurities. People who seriously need high conductivity copper end up having to keep it sealed to prevent impurities via multiple platings or plastic wrap to prevent oxidation in air, because once it is in air, it’s no longer oxygen free high-purity. Moreover, this very soft material is hardly usuable for traditional metal applications because it has low strength. Further, it’s difficult to machine because it galls and grabs tooling. One of my students, who shall remain nameless for this post, decided to proceed with a C101 copper round because the machine shop had it and he was in a hurry. His piece ended up sitting for days immersed in an alum solution while he tried to dissolve away the tap he broke in it.

Calculating Thermal Diffusion

What’s potentially even more common than breaking tooling with copper is designing a part without doing simple heat transfer calculations to justify the design decisions. Problems are usually more time limited with cryogenics than temperature limited, which adds an additional dimension beyond traditional thermal conductivity. My co-advisor Greg Nellis and Sandy Klein’s classic text “Heat Transfer” is also required lab reading. Greg presents a handy equation for estimating the thermal diffusion time constant:

tau = L^2/(4*alpha)

where tau is the approximate time it takes for a thermal wave to propogate through a material of length L and thermal diffusivity alpha. Thermal diffusivity is the ratio of thermal conductivity to density times heat capacity. Jack Ekin’s book has a great graph on thermal diffusivity here: With this you can quickly gauge whether, from a time perspective, it makes sense to have a higher purity material in your system. That 6 order of magnitude difference between copper and plastic changes a 10 minute equilibration time to a 19 year(!!) equilibration time.

Clever Geometry Hacks

One more trick to convince yourself that you don’t need high purity copper is geometry. A common problem in cryogenics is the routine calibration of temperature sensors over a large range of operation (3-120 K). Heat transfer occurs, by definition, through a temperature gradient. So one way to minimize temperature gradients, rather than going to a high conductivity material, is to reduce the heat transfer via geometry. By positioning temperature sensors in a “thermal dead-end” you minimize heat flow through the region and create a very uniform or equilibrium sector for sensor calibration. Again, Ekin’s wisdom shines through with this concept:

The ultimate geometry hack is to remove the system from your cryostat entirely. An old saying in racing and aerospace, “any part left off the plane weighs nothing and never breaks.” You could extend this to include that it takes no design or machining time or expense either. The same goes for cryogenics.

In summary

You need to read Jack Ekin’s book and Greg Nellis’ text if you want to get good at cryogenics. The old saying goes, “A weeks worth of time in the library saves a year’s worth of time in the lab.” The same probably applies to simple design calculations and time spent on prototyping: do the simple calculation first to see what actually matters, then make your design decisions and keep them simple. Yes you could 3D print something complex these days and do an FEA analysis of heat transfer that looks pretty. But in the end, you’ll probably realize that the wonderful promised lands you had in mind may not be what you’re really looking for or needed.

Blind-spots and how to discover

‘Cause we’ve all got ’em and no intelligence is universal.


We had an accident in the Leachman family household. A routine effort to clean the kitchen oven ended up stripping the veneer off the poor cabinets below. Have no fear, I’m a woodworker.

Our house is a true relic. Original custom mid-century modern built in 1956 with gorgeous tongue-and-groove ceilings and Polynesian Mahogany paneling throughout. I’m 100% sure it’s Polynesian Mahogany because it’s specified in the original blue prints we have framed on the wall.

So a jaunt to the hardware store produced some Polynesian Mahogany boards which I had shaped, bonded, and finished after a day. I proudly installed the doors and stepped back to look at my wife for the “I fixed it” moment.

Only to realize the cabinets in our kitchen are not Polynesian Mahogany, but stained Maple instead. You may have even missed this difference in the photo.

The Polynesian Mahogany cabinet doors were left as a persistent reminder of what I like to call “blind-spots”: our flawed assumptions about the simplicity of our complex world.

Let’s pause for a moment. Look out straight ahead of you. Now within your field of view, notice something that you’ve never noticed before.

It’s not too hard to find blind spots. When you think about the torrent of information our senses unleash on our brains, it’s only natural for our brains to develop compression algorithms. If we noticed and remembered everything, always, we’d be wrecks. Our brains have an incredible ability to simplify the world around us via assumptions. These assumptions are typically formed relative to our values. It’s this combination of observations and assumptions that form our unique conscious realities.

And it’s these inevitable flaws in our assumptions that create our blind spots. The trick is in identifying and fixing those blind-spots that will matter down the road.

The Discovery of Blind Spots

I have a good friend, one of the smartest people I know, who struggled most of his life with weight loss. On multiple occasions I tried to bring different diet strategies up with him and was dismissed. At one point he even said, “You can’t use values to predict what someone is going to eat. People are impulsive and just eat whatever they want to.”

It’s particularly ironic because this is the same friend who has the mantra, “you don’t know what you don’t know!”

Seeing the stonewall, I backed off to try a more subtle approach, delivering lunches to spur conversation, etc. Thankfully, he had another friend whom he was looking to impress that presented the weight-loss topic an accompanying book in the right way. After reading loads of books and successfully applying the material, he’s lost a lot of weight and is on the road to health again. The problem is he thinks he’s discovered the secret to weight-loss and is now the authority needing to educate the rest of us — another blind-spot.

I’ve noticed I receive a few responses when I discover a true blind-spot in someone else: 1) avoidance, 2) denial, and 3) an overly long blank stare.

It’s no coincidence that Alcoholics Anonymous preaches the mantra, “admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.” Identifying you have a blind-spot makes it a value that you can begin building knowledge about.

Another response I often get and give is, “I never thought about it like that.” This is someone who has constructed knowledge in an area, but had a small blind-spot in putting it together. These are relatively easy fixes that people are more receptive to and are often fixed with just that response.

It’s the BIG blind-spots that are a lot harder to remedy. To use a thermodynamic analogy, a person’s information capacity for a subject is like the heat capacity: Cv=du/dT where internal energy (u) is like values and temperature (T) is like resources. If a person has little to no information capacity for a topic (due to a blind spot) it’s going to take a LOT of effort (dT) to influence or change their values (du) in any appreciable way.

Correcting Blind-spots

In his fantastic autobiographical book, “Why we Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman,” author Peter Korn establishes that people engage in an artistic or creative pursuit because they believe that afterwords they will somehow be changed by it.

As the wisdom of Lao Tze says, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

We find and most effectively fix our blind-spots by doing things. It’s what shapes our consciousness. From my friend that discovered weight-loss to the discovery of my maple kitchen cabinets, it’s these reality-based feedback loops that shape our realities. It’s the essence of scientific inquiry and research.

So take that road-less-traveled. Start a vacation with no plans. Stumble-upon. Improvise. Go too slow before going too fast. Above all listen.

See our world.

I want no part of a future where technology meets my every value and need such that I become blind.

Project Mobius — Spokane’s Hydrogen Future

Please, allow the students from the Washington Innovation for Sustainable Energy (WISE) club to present Project Mobius, a hydrogen power-to-gas system for Spokane’s Riverfront Park. The project is the club’s submission for the 2017-2018 Hydrogen Education Foundation contest “Designing a power-to-gas system“:

The team members include: Mathew Hunt, Lee Taylor, Ryan Hamilton, Timothy Eckhart, Ashley Mills, Chloe Nichol, Austin Anderson, Austin Dowell, Joseph Ostheller, Nicholas Potter, and Spencer Seeberger. The team was advised by Ian Richardson and Jake Leachman. External project stakeholders that provided advise on the project include Steve Wenke at Avista Corporation, Gary Higgenbottom from ITM-Power, William Fuglevand at Plug Power, and Kim Zentz of the Spokane SmartCity/Urbanova project and WSU.

The entire report submitted for the competition is available here: 2017_HEF_CONTEST_WSU_SUBMISSION

A brochure on the project is here: 2017_H2_CONTEST_WSU_BROCHURE_SUBMISSION

The team selected Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane to be the location of the system due to the history of the site with the 1974 World’s Fair, which was the first environmentally themed World’s Fair. Avista has an available water turbine in a nearby diversion dam that can provide 576 kW of power to the electrolyzer, which will produce 225 kg of hydrogen per day. The hydrogen can be injected into the natural gas grid or used for fueling hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles. The project is estimated to displace over 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year, or the estimated emissions of 430 cars.

The shape of the electrolyzer container and the two adjacent 20′ hydrogen storage containers is a Mobius strip from the ’74 World’s Fair — to symbolize the never-ending recycling of energy epitomized by hydrogen from water.

Regardless of whether they win the competition, the team may have started the first large-scale public hydrogen project for the Pacific Northwest!

A HYPER car?

We’ve had a Zenn car in front of the HYPER lab for four years now.

The Blue Zenn Car outside of the HYPER labs TFRB high-bay.

It’s time has come.

We’re submitting an Amazon Catalyst grant to make it the first Hybrid Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle in Washington State.

The HYPER car. — Sketch credit Carl Bunge.

The resulting modular skid can retrofit conventional battery electric vehicles — 24,000 exist in Washington State alone!

Let us know how you can help:

The $10B per year challenge facing Washington State

If you could solve one problem affecting the lives of everyone in the Pacific Northwest, what would it be?

What would you be willing to give up to solve it?

WSU is working to solve many Grand Challenges. The one I’m telling you about today is a $10B per year problem that’s making us sick — the importing and use of fossil fuels in Washington State.

So here is my Grand Challenge:

Sustaining the Pacific Northwest via locally produced, clean, fuel.

More specifically, reducing the importation of carbon-based fossil fuels into Washington State to less than half of the status quo by 2050, when I’m eligible to retire.


The 7,310,300 residents of Washington State own 7,872,783 vehicles that nearly entirely burn imported fossil fuels. 46% of Washington State’s primary energy needs come from petroleum resulting in nearly half of the 94.4 Million Metric Tons of greenhouse gas emissions in our state in 2013. If those emissions were solid CO2 piled on top of CenturyLink field, it would be a pile 7.5 miles tall, every year. It’s a giant scar on our state — one that funnels $$$ billions out of our state to import those fuels, the emissions of which ultimately disrupt the lifespans of us and our ecosystems.

Breakdown the big three fossil fuel imports — 141.5 million barrels of oil, 308 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 3.5 million short tons of coal — assume $60/barrel of oil, $3.00/thousand cubic feet of natural gas, $45/ton of coal, and that’s $8.5 billion lost to oil, 0.924 billion to natural gas, and $157.5 million to coal. That’s nearly $10 billion every year that would stay here in our state if we had domestic alternatives. Not to mention the reduction in medical bills from the reduced pollution.

Moreover, an alternative like hydrogen is a primary feedstock for many chemical processes, including fertilizer, that we also import.

What will we replace Fossils with? — Electrofuels – primarily Hydrogen

More than 3/4 of Washington State’s electricity generation is from renewable sources in the Columbia basin, making Washington the 2nd largest renewable energy producer in the United States. We produce so much electricity that over half is distributed elsewhere via the Western Interconnect. Here’s a breakdown by power generation type for the Bonneville Power Administration:

Note the monthly variation in Hydro Generated associated with spring run-off, how we vary the output of our single nuclear power plant (Thermal Generated) to adjust for the variable load, and that more power is sent to California (Net Interchange) than we use (Net Load). We see something interesting when we take a closer look at the Wind Generated. In the below right figure you see the increase in installed wind generation capacity for BPA, a nice exponential increase that hit a wall in 2012. The lower left figure, a map of Current and Proposed Wind Projects in the Columbia Gorge, shows that the limit in generation capacity wasn’t due to a lack of sites. The limit is our ability to control the daily fluctuations in renewable power supply.

At any given moment the BPA is working to regulate the power on the grid, to keep the voltage from getting too high (light bulbs blow out) or too low (brown outs). The BPA has real time outputs of this balancing act. Here is a shot from 2016 I use in talks. You can see two points where we exceeded our limit to decrease (dec) and increase (inc) energy on the grid, which causes problems. Although there are many ways to improve incs and decs, they start becoming expensive and difficult to manage. Here’s a chart from BPA showing the difference between expected wind power and the actual. Differences between the two shows when balancing reserved had to be kicked in.

So to continue increasing the amount of wind we need to increase the amount of dispatch-able loads that can take that wind power. NREL has done the studies. Hydrogen producing electrolyzers take water and this excess electricity and are great for variable supplies such as wind-power. This storable energy form can then be used for cars, injected into the natural gas system, or stored seasonally for power production during other times of the year.

How will our vehicles change?

Washington state is making excellent strides on all electric vehicles. This requires extensive infrastructure investments to install charging stations and to upgrade our neighborhood transformers to handle the increased supply. But the investment will pay off big time! Not only will we need less fuel imports, we’ll be able to more easily balance the grid if these chargers are smart.

But like most things, this won’t solve all of our problems. I’ve written several articles about the tradeoffs between electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Most see this as an either or. But when you stand back and look at where the technology is headed, you quickly realize that battery and fuel cell technologies are synergistic and what we all want is a hybrid. Read my piece on “Toyota versus Tesla” for more. In short, the optimal is a hybrid fuel-cell battery-electric vehicle with a 40 mile plug-in battery range (easily done with rooftop solar in the Northwest or a standard plug-in outlet overnight) and a 300 mile hydrogen fuel-cell backup (perfect for getting out and running on the highways with only 3-5 minutes to fully recharge).

Sound good? Here’s how to help make it happen.

WSU-Pullman is the flagship institution in the heart of the Columbia River Basin, the 2nd largest river in North America. Our Grand Challenge is to steward the resources of this region to sustain the vitality of the Pacific Northwest.

The HYdrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) lab at WSU is poised to address this challenge by being the only university cryogenic hydrogen lab in the US. We are developing solutions to our hydrogen refueling challenge as exemplified by the following video:


With two top finishes in the International Hydrogen Student Design Contest , our experience developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles like the Genii liquid hydrogen drone, alumni who have created startup companies, we uniquely have the experience to lead this energy transition for our region.

Seriously. But we need your help to do it. Here’s the link to donate. And here are many other ways to help.


  1. Thanks to Ken Dragoon of Flink Energy Consulting for helpful comments on BPA.



An AWESOME start to 2018 for HYPER lab grads

It’s been a special week for three HYPER lab grads.

Patrick Adam (Ph.D. ’17) , Ian Richardson (Ph.D. ’17), and Eli Shoemake (M.S. pending), co-founders of the startup company Protium Innovations LLC, were notified that they’ve won a Small business Technology TRansfer (STTR) award from the National Science Foundation for their 3-D printed liquid hydrogen tank technology. The award announcement can be found here. The Phase 1 award is for $225,000 for the first year, after which they can apply for a phase 2, multi-year award.

This same week, Ian Richardson was notified that he will be awarded a 3 year Postdoctoral Fellowship for technology commercialization from the Washington Research Foundation. The fellowship provides an annual salary $70,000, benefits, as well as $10,000 for travel and supplies. Ian will stay in Pullman and continue to work out of the lab during his post-doc.



Washington State University