07/22/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/22/2021 11:40
This news is exciting to me as I believe hydrogen to be the world's best candidate to solve what Bill Gates calls 'The 75% Problem ': three-fourths of all emissions are related to agricultural, industrial, and other hard-to-decarbonize processes.
High heat and cheap electricity produced using Heliogen's innovative AI-powered concentrated solar power (CSP) arrays provide the energy that allows Bloom's highly efficient solid oxide electrolyzers to produce hydrogen at very low cost.
While this announcement means that Heliogen and Bloom have solved part of the problem to transitioning to a zero-carbon world, I believe other companies will need to pick up the baton to sort out the engineering difficulties involved from storing, moving, and using pure hydrogen as an industrial fuel source.
Why This Announcement Matters
Like many people, I love my mobile phone. The only thing I don't care for is its weight.
Even my newest model weighed in at around 121 lbs. (55 kg.) right out of the box and it is mysteriously gaining heft every time the screen flickers on.
While 121 lbs. might sound excessive, it is the approximate mass of the CO2 equivalents emitted while mining the raw materials, manufacturing the metal, glass, and silicon components, assembling those parts into a sleek phone, and shipping that phone to my local electronics store.
Everyone loves the idea of 'carbon neutrality', but how many of us love it enough to give up our mobile phones (or air conditioners or strawberries or reading glasses, for that matter)?
This situation is precisely what Bill Gates talks about when he refers to the 75% problem. Only 25% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are tied to electricity production; the remainder relates to industrial, agricultural, transportation, and buildings - sectors that, until now, have been devilishly hard to decarbonize.
Heliogen and Bloom plan to produce industrial hydrogen using only concentrated solar power, water, and a great many clever scientific and engineering advances.
What's the Big Deal About Hydrogen?
Hydrogen is a perfect candidate to power the processes that enable our magical modern existence. In fact, to the extent that hydrocarbons - molecules that contain both hydrogen and carbon - are the substances that allow to manufacture everything from glass to plastics to steel to nitrogen fertilizers - hydrogen is already powering the modern world, albeit as part of a molecule rather than in its elemental form.
The obvious, critical downside to using hydrocarbons is clear enough for anyone paying attention to the recent apocalyptic news out of China, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest: when hydrocarbons are burned, carbon latches onto two oxygen atoms to form the powerful greenhouse gas that threatens the ecosystem on which our civilization depends.
If we could figure out how to use the hydrogen without having to worry about discarded carbon atoms drifting into the atmosphere, civilization would be in fat city.
A huge and obvious advantage of hydrogen as a raw energy input is how plentiful it is. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe and every molecule of the most plentiful compound on earth - dihydrogen monoxide, a/k/a 'water' - contains two hydrogen atoms.
Unfortunately, the chemical bond tying hydrogen to other elements is so strong, separating a hydrogen-containing molecule requires a great deal of energy. There are only two ways to strip hydrogen:
Hydrogen created with steam methane reforming releases tons and tons of CO2. Discarding the waste CO2 into the atmosphere - the most common method - makes creates what is known as 'grey' hydrogen. The cost of grey hydrogen varies mainly on the cost of the methane burned. Since methane is cheap in the US, most of the hydrogen produced here is grey, and most of it is further refined to create ammonium-based fertilizer.
If CO2 produced in steam methane reforming is captured in the smokestack and discarded some other way (i.e., buried in the ground) the hydrogen is considered 'blue.' The carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) process adds on about 50% to the cost of blue hydrogen, so it would not be bought by a company with a purely profit motive.
The only way to make the cleanest form of hydrogen - so-called 'green' hydrogen - is through the electrolysis process powered by renewable resources. Before Heliogen began developing its modular Sunlight Refineries, the cost of producing green hydrogen with conventional photovoltaic solar arrays or wind farms was very high - about three times the cost of blue hydrogen - so completely uneconomical for a buyer with a purely profit motive.
The collaboration between Heliogen and Bloom Energy means that renewable energy can be combined with renewable heat to create truly cost-competitive green hydrogen.
Back to the Future with Bloom Energy
The world leader in the chemistry of electrolysis is Bloom Energy. While today the company is famous as a global leader in fuel cell technology, it was originally founded by scientists coming out of a NASA research program designed to create oxygen for astronauts on Mars.
Considering that customer demand for breathable oxygen on Mars is fairly low and the timing of that demand is highly uncertain, Bloom's founders decided to commercialize their scientific and engineering insights by reversing the electrolysis process.
Doing so creates a fuel cell that turns hydrocarbons and steam into energy through a safe, silent, and clean-ish electrochemical process, rather than through combustion.
Bloom Energy Servers ('Bloom Boxes') - large industrial arrays of stacked fuel cells - are used by influential global clients like Caltech, FedEx, Google, the Wonderful Company, and Wal-Mart, to provide power to their facilities.
Last week, Bloom announced it was launching a new business that returned it to its electrolizer roots and underscored its commitment to a zero-carbon future.
It will leverage its last 20 years of advances in its solid oxide fuel cell technology and production process to manufacture a new line of solid oxide electrolyzers. Essentially, the company has reset its Bloom Boxes to work backwards - taking in water and adding electricity and heat to produce pure hydrogen.
That hydrogen has the potential to solve the 75% Problem.
The Economics of the Heliogen-Bloom Energy Tie-Up
Bloom's solid oxide technology and electrolysis process, which utilizes high temperature steam, is much more efficient than low-temperature electrolysis methods. The world-wide proliferation of its Bloom Boxes suggest that the company has plenty of experience operationalizing its technology at scale.
Heliogen's CEO, Bill Gross, believes that the economics of Bloom's solution, combined with Heliogen's ability to provide unlimited amounts of renewable energy to the process represents a quantum leap in supplying the energy needed to produce industrial and agricultural goods.
'Clean hydrogen has been a dream of the future for decades,' says Gross. 'The reason it remained a dream for so long comes down to price: burning natural gas to create hydrogen was so cheap, there was simply no reason to do it any other way. Bloom Energy is driving up the [electrolysis] efficiency and we are driving down the price of heat and electricity - to the extent that we are within reach of producing hydrogen at the same price [as steam reformation] or lower.'
Bloom's Chief Technical Officer, Dr. Venkat Venkataraman agrees:
'Thanks to Heliogen's ability to produce low-cost electricity and high-temperature steam and the efficiencies we provide through our high-temperature electrolyzer, we can offer clean hydrogen at a price that is cost competitive to traditional methods.'
The Impact of the Heliogen-Bloom Energy Announcement
With Heliogen's CSP technology, you can create a great deal of cheap energy in the Atacama Desert of Chile. However, that energy won't do anyone in Japan any good because it's too hard to string electrical cables over the Pacific (not to mention problems due to the electrical resistance in the cables…).
The only way to solve the number one problem of renewable energy - its intermittency - is to figure out how to first store the green energy, then to move it where it is needed when it is needed. This announcement holds the solution to that problem.
Bloom Energy's electrolysis technology makes it possible to bottle the energy that Heliogen's Sunlight Refineries produce. That bottled sunlight can be transported to a steel mill or a cement factory or to a glass manufacturer - exactly the types of industries that Bill Gates identified as so hard to decarbonize - to produce zero-carbon steel, cement, and glass.
As the technology scales commercially, not only will it provide cleaner energy to manufacturers, it will also provide cheaper energy to them.
Gross thinks this cost-saving point holds the key to transitioning to a zero-carbon economy. He senses a real change in attitude in the managers with whom he is speaking and recent announcements in Europe and the U.S. about proposed border adjustment taxes on embedded carbon imports must certainly be a part of that change.
Gross says that a lot of the clients with whom he is talking now have internal carbon prices they are using to assess the returns on certain capital investments. Now, with carbon trading at 60 Euros a ton in Europe, and company managers plugging those numbers into their spending plans, the Heliogen-Bloom Energy value proposition looks very attractive indeed.
Next Step: Building Out the Hydrogen Economy
Both Heliogen and Bloom understand that while their tie-up holds a great deal of promise, there is a lot of work to be done that is out of their respective wheelhouses.
Compressing hydrogen so that it can be stored requires engineering know-how. Moving hydrogen through pipelines requires specially lined pipes and revised safety procedures: hydrogen is colorless when it burns, and the flame can spread much more quickly than a natural gas flame.
Solving these logistics issues are all engineering challenges that are outside of Heliogen and Bloom Energy's core competencies. They need other companies with different core competencies to work with them to build the infrastructure for the new Hydrogen Economy.
Bloom Energy's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Sharelynn Moore emphasizes the importance of its business partnerships. She pointed out that, in May, Bloom announced a collaboration with Baker Hughes to work together to commercialize solutions to storing, transporting and using hydrogen in industrial applications.
In my opinion, Baker Hughes will likely need to partner with other equipment providers to set up the infrastructure to transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen and help its industrial customers understand how to make the switch in their processes. New companies and new divisions of existing companies will spring up to provide services to support the new infrastructure and technology.
Opportunities abound as is always the case when paradigms shift. Opportunities abound, but there is a lot of work ahead.
Today, my phone is too heavy. Not just my phone - my life is too heavy.
I live a typical modern existence, though it certainly is not profligate. Yes, I use a mobile phone, a tablet and a laptop. But I also switch off lights I'm not using and buy energy efficient appliances. I set my thermostat high in the summer and low in the winter.
What a shock it came to me when I realized that if everyone alive on this planet used the same amount of resources and lived the same typical, conscientious developed-nation life as I, humanity would need another four-plus earths' worth of resources to supply everyone's needs.
While I wish it were otherwise, there is an enormous amount of carbon embedded in every product I use and every service I enjoy.
If the products and services I have come to take for granted were produced using hydrogen rather than hydrocarbons, we could make do with somewhat less than four earths - maybe not one, simply because all of us in developed countries use and discard too much, but less than four anyway.
If all the talk of electrolysis and AI-powered concentrated solar arrays and fuel cells seems arcane or hard to visualize, just think about carrying around a 121-pound mobile phone every day.
The tie-up between Heliogen and Bloom Energy offers civilization the opportunity to lighten the burden we are placing on our planet - the opportunity to carry a phone that weighs, in every sense, a few ounces.
Bill Gross, Dr. Venkataraman, and Sharelynn Moore all know, as I know, that civilization cannot afford any more business-as-usual solutions. We must build a bridge to a sustainable civilization. Hydrogen surely represents a major support for that bridge. Intelligent investors take note.