While the Age of Aquarius may or may not be upon us, the age of hydrogen as a future form of alternative fuel is. Hydrogen powered cars are in development, hydrogen fueling stations for both home and on the road are being considered and hydrogen-powered flight is coming. This particular form of alternative fuel technology is not as wide spread as solar or wind, but a growing number of companies are developing in this market to change that. One of the more highly visible at the moment is Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, which we first spotted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. We caught up with one of the behind the scenes guys, Taras Wankewycz, over email for a lengthy interview on his company, hydrogen technology and what one can expect the future to bring.
EarthTechling: Tell us a little about Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies.
Taras Wankewycz: Horizon Fuel Cell is a global fuel cell company whose mission is to bring fuel cell technology out of the labs and into the market as products. Our approach is quite radical as we are enabling and implementing a widespread adoption of the technology for the first time in over 60 countries simultaneously, starting with micro-fuel cell products and moving gradually into larger and larger solutions. We are also focused on eliminating the two main barriers for fuel cell commercialization, which is cost and practical access to fuel. All our products come with a workable fuel solution and we have various technologies involved in making this possible.
We have five main businesses, three of which are active: education-toy-hobby products /portable power/aerospace-defense. The two areas under development for the future are transport and stationary. We currently have many more products available for sale than any other fuel cell company, and also believe we produced and shipped the most fuel cell products worldwide in terms of units in the last two-three years.
ET: Why hydrogen as an alternative energy source? Any benefits over others such as solar?
TW: Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier. As element 1 on the periodic table, hydrogen is actually the best possible energy carrier as it stores more energy per unit of weight than any other element in the universe. If we look at our energy use in the past 1000 years, humans went from using the most carbon intensive and least hydrogen intensive material which is wood, to coal, to petroleum products and high octane gasoline (gasoline with a higher content of hydrogen). Over time, the proportion of hydrogen over carbon in these solutions has increased – making our energy more efficient, and less carbon intensive. However even so, we are using an increasing amount of these fossilized hydrocarbons creating a problem on the supply side (price) as well as an environmental problem with the CO/CO2 exhausts from combustion of hydrocarbons. As a natural outcome of our energy evolution, the last frontier for our civilization is zero carbon, 100% hydrogen.
There are several challenges in making use of hydrogen in practical and efficient ways – including production of hydrogen, storage of hydrogen, and conversion to usable electricity using fuel cells. There have been many attempts in the past decades to make this a reality – but it’s not easy as it means bringing together many scientific disciplines to solve fundamental cost related issues. This is still an emerging technology and continuous progress is being made on cost, on efficiency, and performance. Horizon works on all fronts, with many innovations taking place across the board.
Hydrogen is not a competitor to solar or wind, but a common link that makes these solutions more usable, lower cost and increasingly decentralized. Hydrogen is the common denominator of all renewable energies since it can be produced using Wind, Solar or Geothermal energies. One important barrier to solar or wind energy is storage and transportation, and the intermittent nature of energy production from these green sources of energy. Storing solar energy as hydrogen can be lower cost than today’s methods which includes using batteries. We have developed ways to store electric energy at a weight energy density of 200Wh/kg (better than lithium batteries) at fraction of the cost of lead acid batteries. Economics are an important consideration since this is one of the main barriers for many of these technologies.
Fuel cells are the way to convert that energy back to usable electricity without combustion, avoiding carbon emissions altogether. Fuel cells do not replace batteries or other power delivery technologies – but they enhance them by bringing more stored energy at lower cost. Batteries are more efficient but have a capacity limit, which makes them much more expensive when capacity needs to be increased. In many applications already, fuel cells greatly improve the usability of electric powered devices, especially when long run times are important.
This is why you see our fuel cells powering unmanned electric reconnaissance aircraft – since we are able to store and deliver three-four times more energy per weight than any other solution currently available for electric flight. You can also see our fuel cells in portable electric generators, since they are able to hold much more energy than typical batteries – offering longer run times, which is important during emergency use or black-outs. Fuel cell technology already has clear benefits in a number of practical applications – but not all applications at the moment, since technology is still evolving.
ET: How does Horizon implement fuel cell technology into consumer products?
TW: Horizon identifies early product applications where the technology can be commercialized today, then designs and creates the complete products that integrate the technology and all enabling system components that are required for it to work. Over the years, it was able to develop different fuel storage methods, which are the key to make fuel cell products possible in the consumer segment. We have different fuel storage solutions including disposable dry-fuel cartridges that are used in emergency or very special applications that require fast access to energy and high portability (less weight than batteries).
We also have solid state cartridges that are refuelable using newly developed hydrogen stations, which are small desktop devices able to extract hydrogen from water and send it into these small battery-like storage units automatically. The faster speed of charge, higher amount of energy stored vs weight/size, and lower cost, makes it a first fuel solution that competes with existing battery based products. These fuel solutions enable various first products, and we develop solutions that improve the lifetime/run time of battery-based products such as flashlights or chargers.
ET: One product which caught our eye at the Consumer Electronics Show was the Hydrofill. Tell us a little more about this product.
TW: The HydroFILL is a first hydrogen refueling device for consumers. It extracts hydrogen and oxygen from water, sends hydrogen into small metal hydride cartridges which adsorb the hydrogen gas into their crystalline structure. This way, the cartridges are able to store hydrogen at low pressure. The Hydrofill connects to the grid via an AC cord, or can also connect to specially designed solar panels or small wind turbines to store renewable fuel, or to produce usable electric energy in areas where the grid does not exist. It’s fully automatic and easy to use, and also the first low cost consumer-grade solution to be available in the market starting this year.
Our first application for this item is in the hobby RC sector which will use a miniaturized Horizon fuel cell system to run a new generation of high performance model scale racing cars. Our next application is the portable power market where Horizon also developed a handheld electronics USB charger that combines micro-fuel cells with the refillable metal hydride cartridges.
ET: What future products and ideas does your company have for hydrogen fuel as relates to consumers?
TW: Horizon has many ideas for the next products to come out including in the garden equipment area (where consumers need silent machines in order to not annoy their neighbors – electric solutions are the way to go but current battery based products have a short run time). Other products that need longer run times are powerful flashlights, electric bicycles, recreational lake fishing boats, golf carts, and home back-up electric generators that can be used in areas that are prone to grid failures. There will be many more ideas coming as the idea of increasing run times for electric applications increase their appeal.