Pipeline to the future: UCI Professor Scott Samuelsen pushes clean energy technologies

Past Tides
April 2, 2018 By Wendy Wolfson

Transforming the California energy landscape through high-impact
corporate engagement

Professor Scott Samuelsen, director of the Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) at UCI and professor of mechanical, aerospace and environmental engineering, travels the world fostering the industry collaborations and policy frameworks necessary to build sustainable energy infrastructures.

APEP, located on campus in the Engineering Laboratory Facility, also houses the UCI-based National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC), and the UCI Combustion Laboratory (UCICL). In a recent interview, Samuelsen highlighted a few of the many projects in which APEP has depended upon extensive corporate engagement to bring important research to demonstration and deployment. According to Samuelsen, collaborating with industry allows APEP’s research to be more meaningful.

“We garner the confidence of industry in our findings and bring together disparate groups, such as competitors, to work for a common cause in a neutral university setting,” Samuelsen said. “The university is able to host a variety of entities that would not otherwise be comfortable in a meeting or be allowed to meet in the absence of a moderating entity.”

Building strategic alliances requires time and multiple meetings, and can be planned or occur on the fly.

“I was in South Korea recently for the introduction of the NEXO, the Hyundai next generation fuel cell electric vehicle,” Samuelsen said. “This provided an unplanned, but welcomed opportunity to discuss collaborations with 20 other hydrogen leaders, including those from Scotland, Germany, China, Australia, and the Netherlands.”

Industry engagement

Currently, two major types of electric light duty vehicles are emerging, the battery electric vehicle (BEV) and the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). According to Samuelsen, battery electric vehicles comprise perhaps 2 percent to 5 percent of cars in California, and a growing number of fuel cell hydrogen electric vehicles are now driving the roads. A combination of FCEV’s and BEV’s are slated to replace the gasoline car over time. Fuel cell vehicles offer fueling times and a driving range very similar to those of gasoline vehicles, while battery electric vehicles are limited in range and have long charging times but are convenient for most local trips. Samuelsen and his researchers believe both will be valued and necessary to meet customer needs for clean transportation.

A significant focus for APEP research is the commercial deployment of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which drives a growing need for renewable hydrogen.

“Today in California, 33 percent of the hydrogen dispensed for the early market of commercial fuel cell vehicles must be renewable,” said Samuelsen. “But our goal is not just to meet and sustain 33 percent, but to get to 100 percent.”

Automotive manufacturers who want to sell in California must comply with the state’s environmental standards.

“Manufacturers are mandated to deploy zero-emission vehicles, so it is not really an option,” said Samuelsen. “For the vehicles to be successfully purchased, a fueling infrastructure is absolutely critical to justifying the billions of dollars invested by manufacturers in the evolution of fuel cell electric vehicles.”

The UC Irvine Hydrogen Fueling Station, located at Jamboree and Campus Drive, is the first publicly accessible station in California and the most used in the world today.

“In 20 years, hydrogen dispensing will be ubiquitous around the country,” said Samuelsen. He maintains that the price for fuel cell vehicles will come down from the present $40,000 with incentives.

“You will see the $19,000-$20,000 fuel cell vehicle coming out in parallel with the build out of the infrastructure hydrogen dispensing,” Samuelsen said. “No one working in this area is worried about pricing being out of reach.”

According to Samuelsen, car companies in general do not look to universities to assist in the design of a vehicle. Rather, companies seek to work with universities to develop technological advances such as hydrogen infrastructure, and the generation and dispensing of hydrogen. Another area of engagement is information connectivity, where cars communicate with other vehicles—called vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) or with infrastructure—called vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication.

“We are conducting substantial research in this area, principally with Toyota,” said Samuelsen. “And that technology will be required for autonomous vehicles. Not only must the automobile be smart, but that the infrastructure must be smart as well.”

The infrastructure planning has to be done outside of an individual manufacturer because of the need for uniform standards.

“Basically, any one automobile company cannot do it alone,” said Samuelsen. “This is a fertile area for university leadership and research.”

Tri-Generation: New hydrogen technology launched in a conference room

The era of fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen began in the late 1980s.

“After the first decade of vehicle development, it became clear that an efficient means to generate the hydrogen was needed,” said Samuelsen. “In 2002, we brainstormed a design for high-temperature stationary fuel cells that would create not only electricity and heat, but also hydrogen as a third product, hence the name, Tri-Generation. We then reached out to industry members of the NFCRC who we thought would be interested in exploring the technology. ”

In 2005, the Department of Energy (DOE) funded a strategic alliance comprised of the NFCRC, hydrogen supplier Air Products Incorporated located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Danbury, Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy Inc. with the goal to build and test a prototype system. After successful development and testing of the prototype at FuelCell Energy, the DOE selected California for field testing in 2009.

Because fuel cells can operate on both natural gas and biogas, the DOE contract mandated that the partners test the concept at a waste water treatment plant and thereby generate renewable hydrogen.

“We were not particularly anxious to do that in the first field test, but the DOE insisted,” recalled Samuelsen. “The eventual fuel would not come from natural gas, but instead from sewage–human waste.”

The partners demonstrated the Tri-Generation system at the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) with the capability to dispense 100 kilograms per day of renewable bio-hydrogen at a publicly accessible fueling station. Commissioned in August 2011, the station was used by Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Honda for their fuel cell vehicle test fleets. The demonstration concluded in May 2015 and, at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota announced that it would be the first commercial customer to deploy the technology. The first commercial Tri-generation plant will produce 1,200 kilograms of hydrogen daily, more than 10 times the capacity of the prototype station, and be situated on Toyota property at the Port of Long Beach. The system will be powered by biogas sourced in the Central Valley and produce renewable hydrogen for fueling both fuel cell electric vehicles arriving at the port and fuel cell electric drayage trucks that are being demonstrated at the port.

The Toyota plant will also produce 2.3 megawatts of power and high quality recoverable heat, which can be used to supply hot water for the Toyota car washing facility.

“It is almost like a truck stop,” Samuelsen said. “As the first commercial application in history, it is very exciting.”

Renewable Power to Gas (P2G)

APEP’s research extends beyond just the development of fuel cells, it also addresses the need to generate and transport renewable fuel to end users. California is mandating that 50 percent of its electrical power be generated by renewable sources by 2030.

According to Samuelsen, a perennial problem for renewable solar and wind is “curtailment,”– when the renewable solar and wind sources have to be turned off because of insufficient load on the system to utilize the electricity produced. Rather than lose that energy, APEP is exploring the generation of hydrogen by electrolysis, the storage and transport of the hydrogen, and the later use of the hydrogen. In electrolysis, electricity is used to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen produced can then be directed into existing natural gas pipelines and later used, when the load demands, to generate electricity through a stationary fuel cell, or to fuel zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicles.

Directly injecting the gas into the natural gas infrastructure can create a massive energy storage buffer for managing the electric grid during high use of renewable power—shielding it from fluctuations and daily and seasonal variations in supply. Currently, no other technology is capable of storing this amount of energy while simultaneously delivering renewable energy from remote locations of production to urban areas, without the environmental impact of additional overhead power lines.

In a first-in-the-U.S. proof of concept project at UCI, APEP is using an electrolyzer to create hydrogen and inject it into an existing UCI microgrid natural gas pipeline that feeds the campus’ 13 megawatt gas turbine power generator.

Mapping with “STREET”

Samuelsen and his graduate students have also developed the computer planning tool that was adopted by the state of California for the location of the initial hydrogen fueling stations for fuel cell electric vehicles throughout the state. The tool, called Spatially and Temporally Resolved Energy and Environment Tool (STREET), has established that 68 hydrogen dispensing stations are needed to enable commercialization, and has pinpointed the locations for an effective hydrogen fueling infrastructure. In developing STREET, APEP worked closely with automobile manufacturers General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes to coordinate with the launch and availability of their fuel cell electric vehicles.

“STREET is now being used for states in the northeast to guide hydrogen station deployment” said Samuelsen.

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