Kathy Ayers on the Promise of Hydrogen

In May 2017, we sat down with Kathy Ayers, vice president of research and development for Proton OnSite, at the 231st ECS Meeting in New Orleans. The conversation was led by Amanda Staller, web content specialist at ECS.

Ayer’s work focuses on a multitude of energy technologies, including fuel cells, batteries, and solar cells. Currently, her work targets the production of hydrogen by PEM electrolysis. She has been a member of ECS since 1999, lending her expertise to various Society programs and meeting symposia along the way.

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Amanda Staller: Where does hydorgen play a role in the energy landscape?

Kathy Ayers: It’s an intermediate for a lot of other processes. Lawrence Livermore has done some analysis that say currently two percent of the U.S. energy goes through hydrogen as an intermediate from the primary energy source to the end use.

As part of that, we need to figure out how to make those steps more renewable, because that’s where a lot of emissions are. There are some emerging markets, for example, like fueling for fuel cell vehicles where once there are more cars on the market, it will become more and more important to find sources of hydrogen that are renewable and affordable.

There are different countries, including the U.S., looking to see if you can use hydrogen as an energy storage medium for renewables as they are placed on the grid and they’re intermittent and you need to level out those loads. Those are still things that are growing.

AS: What would a hydrogen-based vehicle trasnportation system look like? How to electric vehicles stack up against hydrogen-powered vehicles?

KA:It would be very similar to fueling our cars now. The mechanisms are very similar. You connect the dispenser, you wait three minutes, and you’re done. That’s the advantage. You have fast charging times and you can go long distances.

GM has done an analysis looking at a miles per minute charging metric, with gasoline and hydrogen pretty similar at 100 to 150 miles per minute whereas batteries are around six. People who want to take longer trips will want a vehicle with more of those characteristics. If you’re just driving around town and have a very short commute, a battery vehicle might be fine; you can charge it overnight.”

AS: Is the energy indistry looking at hydrogen as a serious contender?

KA: The car companies are certainly serious about it. Toyota and Hyundai already have commercial vehicles. GM is putting together a plant with Honda. California is investing heavily in stations. They have close to 30 of them open already and they’re trying to grow to 100. Europe and Japan are talking about putting in fueling infrastructure. So there’s spaces in the world where people are very serious about it and trying to roll it out. How fast that goes is dependent on lots and lots of things, including policy. But I do think that it has a place and it will grow to some level.

AS: How could hydrogen production and your work in PEM electrolysis play into some of the issues surrouding grid energy stroage as renwable energy sources rise?

KA: That’s actually another advantage of the PEM systems; they tend to have a broader dynamic range so you can go from full output to fairly close to zero without having to worry about the safety of the system.

People have looked at hydrogen and PEM electrolysis, or electrolysis in general, for a few different avenues. One is frequency regulation, so more on a short time scale, can you use an electrolyzer to balance out the frequency. Then for these longer storage times, where you have the excess at some point in the day and you want to capture that – for example in the middle of the day where you might have a lot of solar – and store it for later at night.

AS: What are your thoughts on ECS’s Free the Science initiative?

KA: Being at a small company and being in industry, writing papers is not my primary responsibility and so having things like processing charges deters us from publishing. Free the Science helps to make it more worthwhile for us to put papers out there and I think that’s important because I find that there’s a lot of misconceptions out there and people are not necessarily working on the right problems and so the more that we can publish things, the more we can help guide the whole field in a direction that is most valuable.

I also think that having access to those papers is important in terms of a lot of the research groups that are trying to start up at different universities that maybe aren’t in as wealthy of areas and don’t have the ability to have as many subscriptions.

AS: How can indstury and academia begin to build a better relationship?

KA: I think partly, it’s just taking the initiative to do that. We do a lot of collaborative proposals where we’re working with a university partner. At these types of meetings, I’ll talk to people and we’ll come up with ideas and we’ll wait for a solicitation that is applicable and try to put something together. I think it’s just taking the initiative and having that communication.

A lot of academic labs aren’t necessarily reaching out because there’s an impression that all that stuff is proprietary and the company won’t tell you anything, but I don’t think that’s actually true. I think if you bring an idea to somebody in industry, they’ll tell you whether they think it’s a good idea or not; or if you should change your focus.

If that happens, I think it could bolster innovation accelerate development. Understanding more about where the real limitations that industry face can help spur new ideas and creative ways of getting around them. Working with an industrial partner all along the process helps to get things into device testing earlier and points out things that are limitations earlier.


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