Image: NREL

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and clean hydrogen startup Electric Hydrogen have agreed to collaborate on the development of high-performance electrolyzer components, which will aid in the scaling of clean hydrogen and the discovery of new decarbonization options.

The three-year, $3.6 million cooperation will identify degradation causes in commercial electrolysis cells and evaluate improved stack current designs.

While the alliance will advance fundamental understanding in the field of renewable hydrogen technology, other aspects feel familiar: Several members of the NREL and Electric Hydrogen teams were also instrumental in the long-running NREL-First Solar collaboration that resulted in the commercialization of cadmium telluride solar photovoltaics. The Electric Hydrogen cooperation aspires to replicate that astonishing success by pushing the boundaries of emerging technology once more, this time for renewable hydrogen, an energy source with the potential to decarbonize the most polluting sectors.

The parallel to the rise of solar energy is profound: As was the case with solar two decades ago, pure hydrogen is currently unprofitable due to the high capital costs of electrolyzers. However, the US Department of Energy (DOE) intends to change that through its Energy Earthshot for hydrogen effort, or “Hydrogen Shot” as it is colloquially known—a plan to cut the cost of clean hydrogen by 80 percent to $1 per kilogram in a decade. The Electric Hydrogen collaboration contributes to this goal by focusing on cost-cutting components.

This project builds on more than a decade of DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office investment in research and capability development at NREL and advances DOE’s H2@Scale goal for clean hydrogen across many applications and economic sectors. It will complement ongoing work by two NREL-led multi-laboratory consortia: Hydrogen from Next-generation Electrolysis of Water (H2NEW), which is focused on materials and component integration, manufacturing, and scale-up to support large-scale industry deployment of durable, efficient, and low-cost electrolyzers, and HydroGEN, which is focused on accelerating development of less mature water-splitting materials and technologies to complement H2NEW’s work.

The Electric Hydrogen project will focus on proton-exchange membrane electrolysis and strategies for controlling heat and deterioration at high current densities. The team members’ objective is to combine and optimize many specially engineered layers, reducing the size and cost of the system while designing for a future large commercial-scale stack.

Numerous stakeholders and countries such as the United States have set their sights on clean hydrogen due to its versatility and potential to pave the way to carbon-free energy systems in the near future. Hydrogen has a number of advantages, including the ability to provide long-term storage, the ability to manufacture sustainable fuels and chemicals, and the ability to facilitate increasing renewable integration. This collaboration with Electric Hydrogen will expedite the development of the small molecule’s commercial applications.

“Electric Hydrogen is engineering a high-performance product for water electrolysis—something that could scale up to significant commercial applications,” said Guido Bender, NREL principal investigator on the project. “NREL has pretty unique hardware for testing electrolyzer stacks; this will allow us to characterize efficiency, durability, and performance across a range of operating conditions.”

“Our goal is to build industrial-scale electrolysis so that carbon-heavy industries can adapt,” said David Eaglesham, co-founder and chief technology officer at Electric Hydrogen. “NREL has a history of helping next-up technologies scale to larger markets, and we are confident that this collaboration will achieve similar breakthroughs for renewable hydrogen.”

“This partnership really creates value in multiple directions,” Bender said. “While Electric Hydrogen develops its product, we develop our research capabilities to be more sensitive to device degradation, and, as a result, the entire renewable industry benefits as we achieve new benchmarks in cost and performance.”

“There are a lot of parameters at-play in these cells,” Bender said. “It is a very complex system, and we are excited to expand our knowledge and understanding through this project to support creating durable and efficient next-generation electrolyzers.”

Nedim Husomanovic

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