With NASA funding, Columbus startup taking its fuel cell invention to the moon – and back
By Carrie Ghose – Staff reporter, Columbus Business First
A Columbus fuel cell startup has won a NASA grant to develop a power source for a future moon base – but really wants to take off back on Earth.
Power to Hydrogen LLC was awarded $3.4 million to develop a prototype of its reversible fuel cell technology, which uses solar energy in a 14-day lunar "day" to produce hydrogen and then generate power through the equal amount of darkness.
"It does make people’s eyes light up a bit when you talk about it," CEO Tad Dritz said. "We want to develop it for things here on Earth – green hydrogen for renewable power and also to store energy.
"Wind gusts and doesn’t always blow and the sun isn’t always shining, but we have a consistent need for power," he said. "All the energy you store as hydrogen is there a week from now, a year from now, whenever you need that hydrogen back."
Power to Hydrogen, or P2H2 for short, already has half a dozen employees after starting operations in March. It spun off from pH Matter LLC, which engineers materials and catalysts for batteries, with clients including NASA, the military and automakers.
The company also has won funding and technical support from Shell Energy.
"The long term opportunity is going to be on Earth as a replacement for diesel fuel," said Paul Matter, CTO of P2H2, president of phMatter and co-founder of both.
If that happens, P2H2 would be headed for annual sales in the "hundreds of millions," Dritz said.
"We certainly want to accelerate those goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Dritz said.
The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority in Canton could be the first to pilot the technology with its fleet of about a dozen fuel-cell buses. The agency is among about 20 pioneering the zero-emission vehicles, but currently has to use natural gas to generate hydrogen.
The P2H2 pilot is still being negotiated, SARTA CEO Kirt Conrad said.
"It does solve one of the main barriers to getting cheaper hydrogen that can be used, especially for transportation," Conrad said.
Hydrogen fuel cells combine the gas with oxygen, producing electricity and heat with only water as exhaust. The trouble is, absent a pipeline direct to the sun, the only way to get hydrogen is to use power to split water back up.
Lower cost of wind and solar generation finally made hydrogen production more practical, but only when they're at their cheapest, only a few hours a day, so the equipment sits idle about 70% of the time, Matter said.
The company's fuel cell generates enough hydrogen for its own energy production and to store in high-pressure tanks for other fuel cells. There are competitors, but P2H2's unit is lightweight, an important consideration for space travel.
"It lets you use the electricity when it’s cheap and sell electricity back when it’s expensive," Matter said. "It's mainly a modification to the cell design we patented that lets us operate reversibly."
The cell could power a "micro-grid," Dritz said. For example, an island could use offshore wind power to produce hydrogen at the unit for the community's electricity and fuel-cell vehicles.
The same principle, but with solar, would apply on the moon, producing hydrogen that could be used to refine building materials or as rocket fuel for the trip home, said Chris Holt, co-founder and COO of both companies.
The NASA grant is one of 14 totaling $370 million to develop technologies for a sustainable moon base by the end of the decade. Lockheed Martin and SpaceX are among the other awardees.
P2H2's prototype will be tested for withstanding shock and vibration at Cleveland's NASA Glenn Research Center, then in Houston for testing in temperature and vacuum conditions of a simulated lunar environment.
The three partners met at Columbus-based NextTech Materials LLC in the early 2000s. Rev1 Ventures has invested seed funding in pH Matter, which has licensed some technology from Ohio State.
Although venture capital funding has been a challenge away from the coasts, Dritz said, the partners are proud of growing the business in Central Ohio.
"This is where we live. This is where we want to build our business," he said. "We have no plans to move from Columbus.
"We have the resources we need, we have the talent that we need."
Published: Tuesday, December 1, 2020