H2MOF thinks nanomaterials designed to pull in and hold hydrogen at low pressure, like a sponge absorbing water, are a cheaper, more efficient way to store and move the fuel.
By , Forbes Staff
Hydrogen is a promising form of carbon-free energy, but moving and storing the superlight element is costly and energy-intensive. So a California startup cofounded in 2022 by two leading chemists, including a Nobel laureate, is designing a new type of tank made with nanomaterials that aims to be cheaper and safer than any currently in use — and hold more hydrogen, too.
Irvine, California-based H2MOF hopes to sell its next-generation hydrogen tanks sometime after 2024 to heavy-duty vehicle makers with plans to offer zero-emission fuel cell vehicles. It argues that in addition to holding fuel inside the vehicles, these tanks will also provide a better way to ship the fuel by truck or train as truckmakers transition toward using hydrogen to power carbon-free fleets.
Rather than pumping highly compressed or liquified hydrogen into a conventional tank, H2MOF is designing one that holds the energy-rich fuel in a solid state, absorbing it into specially engineered nanomaterials. The approach is based on research by two of its cofounders and scientific advisors: Omar Yahgi, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Sir Fraser Stoddart, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2016.
“We haven’t had breakthroughs in hydrogen storage because of the extremely challenging properties of the hydrogen molecule,” CEO and cofounder Samer Taha told Forbes from Dubai. “Professors Stoaddart and Yaghi believe it requires us to go deep into the problem and design new materials with atomic precision to come up with the right solution because traditional techniques are not going to work.”
Metal-Organic Framework Materials
The company hopes to be the first to commercialize metal-organic framework, or MOF, materials designed at the atomic level for hydrogen storage but isn’t alone in pursuing the technology. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently published research on an aluminum-based MOF they’ve created to hold hydrogen, according to . (MOF is also the inspiration for the startup’s name, a mashup referencing the acronym and hydrogen.)
“We haven’t had breakthroughs in hydrogen storage because of the extremely challenging properties of the hydrogen molecule.”
“Think of it as a novel combination of organic materials with some metal atoms,” Taha said. “A crystal structure at the nanoscale — at extremely small scale.”
H2MOF is testing prototypes made with crystal-like materials designed to pull in and hold hydrogen atoms like a sponge absorbing water. And unlike carbon fiber-wrapped tanks used in Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell sedan that hold hydrogen at 10,000 pounds per square inch — the level of pressure that “jaws of life” tools use to cut through car doors — H2MOF intends to pressure its tank at less than 300 pounds per square inch.
Storing more fuel at lower pressure means much less cost. Taha estimates that switching from high-pressure tanks to its technology could save $12,000 annually in energy expenses to operate a fuel cell transit bus, for example. And in the case of a car like Toyota’s, H2MOF’s technology could potentially double its 350-mile range per fueling by packing in more hydrogen without adding weight.
Sir James Fraser Stoddart, left, received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf in 2016. He’s one of H2MOF’s cofounders and scientific advisers.
Hydrogen is heavily used for oil refining, fertilizer production and in the chemical industry, but most is made using steam to pull the element from natural gas, emitting carbon dioxide in the process. Making CO2-free hydrogen with electrolyzers — like those sold by Plug Power and Cummins’s Accelera unit — are becoming more widely available, while other startups plan to pull it from the sea (Equatic) or even drill for it (Koloma). But unless startups like H2MOF or Verne, a 30 Under 30 alum that’s also working on new types of tanks, can find better ways to move hydrogen around or use it in vehicles, its potential to replace climate-warming fossil fuels will be limited.
Right now, hydrogen is pumped through pipelines in Texas and California, but they have to be made of materials that can withstand embrittlement and cracking that “slippery” hydrogen causes. Liquifying it is an easier way to transport the fuel, but is even more energy-intensive than storing it under high pressure.
“We won’t be able to build pipelines all the time at all locations and distances, so currently the industry is considering large trucks with gigantic tanks — very expensive and with a lot of energy wasted to pressurize or create liquid hydrogen,” Taha said. “Once you start to scale (hydrogen) into a real business and discover you’re going to waste 30% of the energy, those businesses will stop.”
H2MOF thinks its solid-state hydrogen tanks will be able to hold much more of the elemental fuel at a fraction of the pressure of current carbon-fiber tanks.
The Biden Administration has provided unprecedented funding and support for clean hydrogen, last month announcing $7 billion for a network of hubs across the U.S. to scale up its production and use. The Treasury Department is also expected to announce guidelines for a generous new production tax credit worth up to $3 per kilogram for hydrogen made without generating CO2 or in which the carbon is captured.
H2MOF hasn’t yet applied for any U.S. grants for its hydrogen-related research. It’s a subsidiary of venture firm Revonence Technologies International, of which Taha is also executive chairman. Revonence is backed by private sources in Dubai and has invested “double-digit” millions of dollars in H2MOF’s research, he said. Taha, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, also runs Atoco, another Revonence subsidiary that’s creating nanomaterials to absorb CO2 from ambient air and industrial emissions.
“Hydrogen storage and transportation remains the actual technical bottleneck,” he said. “If we can make a contribution to the storage and transportation issue, it will unlock real demand and it will unlock real adoption of hydrogen.”