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Collaborative energy solutions to combat climate change

NSF grants $5M to ASU researchers for sustainable hydrogen research

by | Sep 22, 2023 | Features, Research

Kevin Tan, an electrical engineering graduate student, Meng Tao, a professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and Muhammad Tayyab Zubair, an electrical engineering graduate student, discuss solar systems for green hydrogen production. Tao has recently been awarded $5 million by the National Science Foundation to lead the multi-institutional Global Hydrogen Production Technologies Center. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU 

The destabilizing impact of climate change is hard to ignore. The energy industry has been heavily implicated in the evolving climate crisis due to its ever-increasing demand for fossil fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy has funded billions of dollars on research and development projects to create long-term solutions and decrease carbon emissions.

Researchers are working to extract the energy available from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, to achieve the net-zero emission solutions that are necessary for humanity to sustainably coexist with the environment.

Hydrogen has been integrated into several industrial sectors, such as the production of fertilizer, however the harvesting process is still derived from fossil fuels. Alternative harvesting methods for generating net-zero hydrogen are emerging as more sustainable alternatives.

Meng Tao, a professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has received $5 million in funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation to lead U.S. efforts to establish international partnerships through the Global Hydrogen Production Technologies Center, or HyPT Center, to advance net-zero hydrogen production. The center is jointly funded by four countries, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. The total funds allocated to the Center, depending on exchange rates, are between $15 to 20 million.

The HyPT Center aims to deliver technological breakthroughs and reduce socioeconomic barriers. One goal is to reduce the cost of techniques for splitting hydrogen molecules from natural gas and water — a process used to generate energy. The researchers will also assess the logistics of establishing a global hydrogen economy. So far, the team consists of more than 40 experts from 26 organizations in the U.S., Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Egypt and Germany.

“NSF builds capacity and advances its priorities through these centers of research excellence by uniting diverse teams from around the world,” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, NSF Director and a professor of computer science in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence. “Global centers will sync talent across the globe to generate the discoveries and solutions needed to empower resilient communities everywhere.”

Global perspective

Tao structured the project around the philosophy that global problems require global collaboration. While different environments rely heavily on various forms of energy, each community is looking at how to produce, store, transport and use hydrogen through sustainable means.

Mike Ranjram, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering and part of the HyPT Center’s power systems and power electronics team, is working to optimize the delivery of renewable energy for hydrogen production.

“The beauty of the HyPT Center is that we have brought together global diversified expertise,” Ranjram says. “The center is developing innovations across the whole process of cultivating net-zero hydrogen, including fundamental hydrogen production technologies, the use of renewable resources and their system integration, public policy, economic markets, and environmental implications. NSF and our partner agencies across the globe recognize that these many different aspects are each critical to achieving low-cost,net-zero hydrogen production and it is essential for us to be learning from each other while we investigate them.”

Tao insists that breaking down the barriers across disciplines and languages is a vast part of the project. However, the ability to connect to researchers globally is vital because it means including communities that have different environments or have been historically underserved and left out of conversations on energy transition.

“If rich countries have green hydrogen and poor countries don’t, we still have not solved the problem because the world is still emitting carbon,” Tao says. “We have to collaborate to understand each community’s needs and achieve our goals.”

Every step matters

Net-zero hydrogen is currently several times more expensive than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, making it exceptionally difficult for less affluent communities to access hydrogen. The network of HyPT Center researchers is employing a vertical integration approach to fully grasp every aspect of net-zero hydrogen production.

Researchers like Hai Wang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University School of Engineering, are exploring the nature of reactions involved in hydrogen harvesting from natural gas. Wang plans to use computational modeling to design suitable catalysts for converting natural gas to hydrogen without environmental damage to scale up lab experiments into industrial operations.

“We are looking at the byproducts from hydrogen production to see whether the byproduct can be made into useful structural materials and make the entire paradigm of the hydrogen economy sustainable regarding carbon emissions,” Wang says. 

From hydrogen production to storage and utilization, they are developing a full understanding of the activity and implications of a new energy industry.

Collaborating across communities

The center is also establishing educational and career opportunities to support members from indigenous communities who have cultural connections with the land they are working on. 

Monsuru Ramoni, an associate professor of industrial engineering in the School of Engineering, Math & Technology at Navajo Technical University, says that the Center’s values naturally align with those of indigenous communities. 

“Indigenous communities have a historical connection to their environments which matches this project’s emphasis on the consciousness to mitigate the challenges within the environment,” Ramoni says. “When you have diversity in the workforce, you have better innovative solutions because you have different perspectives looking at it and I think the innovative technology that will develop from that will be amazing.”-

Large-scale, low-cost hydrogen production with net-zero carbon emissions is essential to mitigate climate change. Tackling this global challenge requires global collaboration and the team is up to the task.

“I’m excited to work with a wide range of talented experts from multiple countries and institutions on such an important problem facing our society,” Tao says. “It’s a fundamentally important issue for everyone, everywhere.”

The Global HyPT Center is internationally led by Arizona State University (U.S.), University of Adelaide (Australia), University of Toronto (Canada), and Cranfield University (U.K.). Additional founding members of the Center include:

US: University of Michigan, Stanford University, Navajo Technical University

Australia: Flinders University, Curtin University

Canada: University of Quebec in Montreal, University of Calgary, McGill University, University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières, University of British Columbia

UK: Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University of Cambridge, University of Birmingham

About The Author

Hannah Weisman

Hannah Weisman produces meaningful and engaging articles to promote the activity and achievements within the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

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