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Nobel laureate hopes startup can achieve hydrogen storage breakthrough


The construction site of a plant for the production of hydrogen in Germany. 

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A California-based startup backed by two pioneering scientists, one of whom is a Nobel laureate, believes it is on the cusp of a “quantum leap” in the hydrogen energy race.

H2MOF, which was co-founded in 2021, is working to develop a solution for hydrogen storage by deploying the latest advancements in the field of molecularly engineered materials.

It says a breakthrough in what it regards as the greatest challenge facing the hydrogen economy is just a matter of time.

“The production of hydrogen, as far as I’m aware, is a settled problem,” professor Fraser Stoddart, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016 and one of the co-founders of H2MOF, told CNBC via videoconference.

“There are ample efficient ways of producing hydrogen. The big challenge that remains is to store it in a manner that stores a lot of it at low pressures and ambient temperatures,” Stoddart said. “I am confident that one way or another we will get there of course.”

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, and has long been billed as one of many potential energy sources that could play a pivotal role in the green transition.

I would say that in the next couple of years we should be able to make another quantum leap forward.

Professor Omar Yaghi

co-founder of H2MOF

Transforming hydrogen into fuel requires energy. If produced using renewable energy, hydrogen’s only climate footprint is water, making it an attractive option for applications such as transportation and electricity generation.

Currently, most hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, a process that generates planet-warming emissions.

Professor Omar Yaghi, founder of reticular chemistry field of science and co-founder of H2MOF, said the company is seeking to compress hydrogen into a small volume without having to use high pressure or low temperatures.

“That’s really the holy grail of the field,” Yaghi said. “How can we store enough hydrogen at room temperature and be able to use it for automobile fueling.”

H2MOF’s co-founders say they are hoping the firm can overcome the high costs and energy demands associated with traditional hydrogen storage methods by designing prototype tanks that can store the energy-rich fuel in a solid state.

Yaghi, who invented metal-organic framework (MOF) materials, providing the inspiration for the startup’s name, said it was difficult to say precisely when H2MOF’s technology might be able to achieve a dramatic improvement in hydrogen storage capacity and safety.

“But I would say that in the next couple of years we should be able to make another quantum leap forward,” Yaghi said.

Hydrogen challenges

Hydrogen power has been gaining momentum despite global headwinds such as rising interest rates and supply chain issues.

Countries including the United States, Germany, Japan and Australia have announced or updated national hydrogen strategies in recent years, seeking to expand their reliance on the gas to shift to a low-carbon economy.

An industry report published late last year by the Hydrogen Council, a business group, found that the hydrogen project pipeline had climbed to $570 billion, a 35% increase from just six months earlier.

The report said that while growth in global hydrogen investments through to 2030 remained robust, further projects would need to be announced and existing projects would need to mature faster.

Hydrogen cars fueling up at True Zero in Fountain Valley in June 2023.

Allen J. Schaben | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Samer Taha, CEO and co-founder of H2MOF, said an “intermediate solution” to the hydrogen storage challenge would likely be achieved in a few years.

“But reaching the holy grail? Probably more than a couple of years but not necessarily decades,” Taha told CNBC via videoconference. “From the speed of research progress we see and being accelerated by AI and all these computer generated models, I predict that it is a matter of years not decades.”

H2MOF’s Stoddart endorsed his colleague’s timeline. “But it is always very difficult to predict the future,” he added.

Critics of hydrogen say that while the fuel can play an important role in the energy transition, it can do so only in a way that is truly climate-aligned. Otherwise, it risks increasing health-harming pollution and stalling clean energy progress.

“There are challenges for sure,” Taha said. “Electricity cannot really solve all the demand requirements of energy in all segments and all sectors. The only way to do that is that you need to provide an alternative fuel that has high energy intensity, similar or better than a fossil fuel, and currently the cleanest option we have is hydrogen.”

He added, “My point is sooner or later we will reach a bottleneck where no more electrification can be done and you must provide an alternative fuel, and that’s hydrogen.”


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