Clean Energy Future: The Future is Getting Colder

by James E. Fesmire, president, Energy Evolution LLC,

From the developments in cryogenic applications over the last 20 years, we can see that the world in its technological workings is getting colder. But really, the world has been getting colder for the last 150 years as advancements in mastering cold have made steady progress. Liquid air for energy storage on power grids; liquid nitrogen for superconducting power cables, electrical generators and food processing; liquid hydrogen for electrical power generation in vehicles, rocket fuel in space transportation, storage of renewable energy sources and fusion energy research; and liquid helium for medical imaging, electronics manufacturing and scientific research are but a few examples of a cleaner, safer and more progressive world extending to more and more people.

Refrigeration machines and insulation technologies to make that happen—from liquefaction to preservation of the cryogens produced—are also advancing. Indeed, from all indications, the future is getting colder and that is a good thing for better use of available energy and for the opening of doors to new ways of meeting the demands in a growing, electrified world.

But be encouraged, as there is no such thing as hot and cold. There is “hotter than” and “colder than,” but heat is heat no matter the temperature, above zero kelvin. The objective of the cryogenic engineer, as with any refrigeration practitioner, is to effectively utilize the “artificial cold” that is produced by trading heat from one location to another. The central job deals with heat (energy), a phenomenon that is intimately familiar to everyone, but one which remains a complete abstraction.

We don’t know what heat is; we only feel or see its effects. As Willis Carrier said in 1927, reflecting on the organization of the Refrigeration Engineers Society in 1904: “The thermal engineer is privileged more than the historian, theologian or poet to consider some of the great questions of the universe. The nature of the forces he is harnessing calls forth his imaginative powers.”

What we know as “cryogenics” today came along at the same time that artificial ice-making machines did in the late 1800s followed by the first industrial-type air conditioning systems in the first half of the 1900s. All of the below-ambient or “artificial cold” developments have been roughly in parallel in the last 150 years. Necessity is the mother of invention, and top-level problem solving takes decades even with favorable socioeconomic conditions.

Cryogenic products are on a similar trajectory with “normal” refrigeration products like the central air conditioning system or household refrigerator, seeing a lag time of only about 50 years. Imagine an LH2 storage tank that one can purchase on a phone app (with next day shipping), then plug it in, hook up hoses, fill it up and forget about it. Only 100 years ago, many considered the household refrigerator a preposterous idea.

We are reminded that energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only moved around or converted among different forms. Electrical power production is a good example. Coal or wood or whatever is burned to generate steam that spins a wheel to make the generator produce electricity. By splitting atoms to heat the water, nuclear power works exactly the same way. The modern steam engine came about starting around 1800. The modern electric motor came about 1900. What is next? Superconducting generators are on the horizon with the potential for great gains in efficiency. Could direct electric power production on a grid scale be enabled by an infrastructure of liquid air and liquid hydrogen? What about fusion energy with excess power for liquefying both the hydrogen feedstock for the reactor as well as the hydrogen for a largescale energy infrastructure?

So what does cryogenics have to do with the environment, sustainability and a clean energy future? What does cryogenics have to do with anything one really be serving people and industry in 2040? These are some big questions for which real answers require context “to make life work better for all people on the Earth for generations to come” is one proposition. The evidence is strong and the examples are many.

For this series in 2020, we will look at examples from recent developments around the world, add some historical viewpoints and form a context to make a tangible case of the connection between cryogenics and a clean energy future (and of course “clean” here really means “cleaner,” but the former just sounds much better).

Liquid hydrogen (LH2) is certainly heating up. It is central to the energy future because it is uniquely an energy carrier. Add electricity to water, make hydrogen (electrolysis); recombine hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell, make electricity (and get the water back, too). The motor in any electric car can run on a battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, or both! Electricity isn’t going away, no one will disagree, and hydrogen is a primary pathway.

Practical success of the free markets has brought out the world’s largest use of liquid hydrogen: for electric fork lifts in warehouses. PlugPower now has systems for Wal-Mart, Amazon and many others. Yes, Wal-Mart runs on liquid hydrogen. Who knew? Who really cares about cryogenics? Wal-Mart does.

Speaking of Amazon, Bezos’ other company, Blue Origin, is completing construction of a massive, Amazon warehouse-size manufacturing complex in Titusville FL. This factory will produce the New Glenn rocket vehicle, a fully reusable spacecraft for low-cost space transportation. The rocket is all cryogenic: the first stage is LOX and LNG while the upper stage is LOX and LH2.

Some in the world are thinking ahead to the day when liquid hydrogen becomes a commodity on par with gasoline. Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) commissioned an LH2 carrier ship, the first in the world, at Kobe Works in Japan. This 380-foot-long ship, named the Suiso Frontier, is a pilot scale ship including a cargo tank with a 250,000-gallon LH2 capacity. The ship is owned by CO2-free Hydrogen Energy Supplychain Technology Research Association (HySTRA). Once complete, the ship will be used as a tech demonstration in Japan to usher in the liquid hydrogen economy.

Currently, Kawasaki has a pilot program in place with Iwatani Corporation, Shell Japan and J-Power to ship liquid hydrogen nearly 5,600 miles between the south coast of Australia and an unloading terminal in Kobe, Japan, that is still under construction. The Tokyo-based association is working to establish and demonstrate technologies necessary for commercializing the liquid hydrogen supply chain by 2030. KHI has shown future concepts with four tanks for a total of about a 44,000,000-gallon capacity for its full-scale carrier ship.

These international efforts bode well for the role of hydrogen in the clean energy future.