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The Precourt Institute for Energy is part of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

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Stanford University launches research initiative on hydrogen as a climate solution

The idea that a hydrogen economy could end dependence on fossil fuels has waxed and waned several times since 1970.

Now, technological advances and a greater focus on climate change have again brought hydrogen to the fore, if not as a total climate solution, then at least a significant one.

In response to these developments, Stanford University launched the Stanford Energy Hydrogen Initiative research and education program to figure out the best uses of hydrogen for decarbonization and to fund development of the necessary technologies, policies, and financial mechanisms. Three Stanford programs – the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Natural Gas Initiative and the SUNCAT Center for Interface Science & Catalysis – have been organizing the Hydrogen Initiative for three years. More than 30 Stanford faculty members have been involved, ranging from mechanical engineers to economists, many with active research in hydrogen already.

Xiaolin Zheng
Xiaolin Zheng (Image credit: Stanford Technology Ventures Program)

“All three organizations share a passion for hydrogen. They all recognize the rising role of hydrogen in the global energy spectrum,” said Xiaolin Zheng, Stanford professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty co-director of the Hydrogen Initiative with Professor Friedrich Prinz. “It’s a shared interest across campus,” Zheng added, speaking at the initiative’s launch symposium on May 2.

Hydrogen’s role in making energy sustainable, affordable, and secure for all people looks to be a significant topic for the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, which will open its doors in September, said the transition dean of the new school, Kathryn Moler.

“Two organizations – the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Natural Gas Initiative – that are really key in launching the Hydrogen Initiative will both be key founding components of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability,” said Moler, while the SUNCAT Center and the university’s other energy research programs will also be critical to the new school’s success.

The topic of renewable fuels, including hydrogen and fuels produced from captured carbon dioxide, is one of Stanford’s strongest research areas in energy. Some 30 Stanford research programs, including the Natural Gas Initiative and the SUNCAT Center, and 150 researchers are working on hydrogen-related challenges. The Hydrogen Initiative is intended to bolster that strength with additional research dollars and more interdisciplinary research teams.

“We have so many outstanding scholars in this area,” said Thomas Jaramillo, director of the SUNCAT Center, a joint program of Stanford’s School of Engineering and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Formally dressed people seated around red tables and facing towards a presentation to the right.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, director of Stanford's Hoover Institution, being interviewed by professor Arun Majumdar at the Hydrogen Initiative launch symposium (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

The new initiative will bring “us all together so we can understand what those challenges are, identify those opportunities and – very importantly – work together in new ways to come up with technological solutions,” said Jaramillo, who is also associate professor of chemical engineering and of photon science.


Research agenda

The new initiative’s research will span the hydrogen value chain, including carbon-free generation, distribution, storage, use, policy, and economics. The Hydrogen Initiative launches with eight corporate members, who will fund almost a million dollars in new research at Stanford in the initiative’s first year. The initiative will request proposals from Stanford faculty members in June. The number of corporations involved could double within a year of operation. Executives from more than 35 companies attended the initiative’s launch symposium. Hydrogen is also the topic of the Precourt Pioneering Projects’ current request for proposals.

“The initiative’s research agenda is ambitious, as it should be given the urgency in exploring hydrogen’s significant potential in contributing to climate solutions,” said Yi Cui, director of the Precourt Institute and professor of materials science and engineering. “It is also holistic, taking advantage of Stanford expertise in hydrogen from science and technology to business and policy.”

The program’s research has already begun. Last August, the forerunner to the initiative – the Stanford Hydrogen Focus Group – published the 40-page report “Decarbonizing Heavy-Duty Transportation.” It covered sustainability for trucks, trains, ships, and planes, which could be harder to power with batteries than are passenger vehicles. Also in 2021, the focus group studied how the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District might optimize the different technologies in its growing zero-emission bus fleet, which includes hydrogen-powered engines.

On generation, the research initiative will support investigations of both green hydrogen, which is produced by splitting water with solar or wind power, and blue hydrogen, which captures the CO2 emissions in the traditional production of hydrogen from natural gas. Technologies for both need significant development to become economical. The initiative will also seek to advance hydrogen’s ability to economically store wind, solar, and hydroelectric power in large amounts from daytime to night and from spring to summer and winter.

Friedrich Prinz
Friedrich Prinz (Image credit: Department of Materials Science & Engineering)

“Renewable energy does not work without appropriate storage, and I’m talking about massive storage,” Prinz, a professor of mechanical engineering and of materials science and engineering, said at the symposium.

“There will be different solutions for energy storage, ranging from batteries to hydroelectric power to hydrogen,” said Prinz, who has advanced both battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. “Hydrogen will – there’s is no doubt in my mind – play a key role in long-term energy storage.”

The Hydrogen Initiative will also seek to examine and advance the use of hydrogen in fuel cells, transportation, and industry, like replacing fossil fuels for making steel. Interweaving the science and engineering challenges will be initiative-funded research to solve related policy, economic and environmental impact problems.

“Of course, nothing will happen if it doesn’t have policy and economics to support it,” said Zheng.

Student participation

In education, the Hydrogen Initiative will continue to support the Hydrogen Economy Seminar, taught by Zheng, as the Hydrogen Focus Group has done since 2020. The popularity of this class and general student interest in hydrogen has led to the formation of the Stanford Hydrogen Club with support from the initiative. Members of this new club include students from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, School of Engineering, and School of Humanities & Sciences.

“When I came to Stanford more than 25 years ago, student interest in energy-related projects certainly existed, but wasn’t dominant,” said Prinz. “Nowadays, when I talk with the students, there is a massive change. Almost every student thinks, ‘How can I engage? How can I contribute to making the world green?’ There’s a passion in our students today.”

The founding corporate members of Stanford’s Hydrogen Initiative are Azimuth Capital Management, Chevron, two subsidiaries of the South Korean conglomerate GS Group, Phillips 66, Technip Energies, Trafigura and SK Group, which is also a South Korean conglomerate.

The co-managing directors of the initiative are Naomi Boness, who is also managing director of the Natural Gas Initiative, and Jimmy Chen, who is also managing director of the Stanford Energy Corporate Affiliates program.

Moler is also vice provost and dean of research at Stanford, and professor of applied physics and physics. Zheng, Prinz, Cui and Jaramillo are also senior fellows at the Precourt Institute. Cui is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Read the announcement about the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and its inaugural dean here.

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