Promise of hydrogen-fueled future lights a fire under Israeli innovators

While Europe and the Far East invest, Israeli tech is researching and developing. Could the Start-Up Nation pull off another Mobileye?

Sue Surkes

The Eviation Alice is introduced by Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay at the Paris Air Show on June 19, 2019. (screenshot: YouTube)

The Eviation Alice is introduced by Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay at the Paris Air Show on June 19, 2019. (screenshot: YouTube)

During the Exodus from Egypt, God split the sea to save the Israelites. Several millennia later, many in Israel increasingly view repeating the miracle — but on the molecular level — as the key to helping save the rest of the planet.

Around the world, the promise of hydrogen power, harvested by separating and reuniting the elements that make up water, is sparking the next revolution in clean energy.

The technology is still in its infancy, but both the government and private sector are pumping money into developing ways to make hydrogen use more powerful, efficient and cost effective.

The Far East, Europe and parts of the US are investing billions into creating a hydrogen infrastructure that will power trucking, heavy industry and even homes.

Tiny Israel neither builds vehicles nor has much heavy industry. Furthermore, the Energy Ministry is focused on replacing coal with less-polluting natural gas and on shoring up the infrastructure needed to reach its target of generating 30 percent of the nation’s energy through renewable sources, mainly solar, by 2030.

Illustrative: Solar panels in the desert near Eilat, Israel. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

But big overseas companies have snapped up many Israeli innovations. The biggest was in 2017, when the US giant Intel Corp. bought Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based developer of advanced vision and driver assistance systems, for $15.3 billion to help position it as a leading technology player in the fast-growing self-driving car market.

Could the Start-Up Nation pull it off again with a piece of genius tech for the hydrogen economy?

Cleaner and safer than any fossil fuel

Just one kilogram of hydrogen supplies as much energy as 7.4 liters (two gallons) of gasoline.

It can be stored, can be transported over large distances, is safer than fossil fuels, and is totally clean. Its only waste product is water.

As it can be produced wherever there is water and a source of electricity, it can offer some energy independence for countries otherwise dependent on powers that produce coal, oil and natural gas.

Hydrogen has to be manufactured, because it occurs naturally on earth only joined together with other elements. These include oxygen, which combines with hydrogen to form water, and carbon, which joins with hydrogen to make the hydrocarbons in fossil fuels.

To date, hydrogen has been manufactured worldwide to produce ammonia for fertilizers, as well as lighter oils such as diesel and jet fuel from petroleum. NASA and the Russian space program have been using hydrogen in their rocket fuel for decades.

NASA moves a massive liquid hydrogen tank to Huntsville, Alabama, for testing as part of plans to eventually return to the moon, December 14, 2018. (Rebecca Santana, for AP)

But the traditional processes used are polluting, inefficient and costly.

Today, as the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions sinks in and as fines for C0₂ emissions rise in Europe and elsewhere, the race is on to develop hydrogen as a clean, efficient, cost-effective alternative.

Fuel cells vs. batteries

Almost 70 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced annually.  This is expected to grow tenfold over the next 30 years as Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea and European ones such as Germany and France push ahead to create a hydrogen economy.

Electric batteries — which Elon Musk, CEO of the electric car company Tesla, believes are the way of the future — are presently more efficient than hydrogen power, which is why Israel will use them in the coming decade to store renewable energy.

This April 26, 2020, photograph shows a long row of 2020 Model 3 sedans at a Tesla dealership in Littleton, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

But they are still expensive, bulky and not suited to large, long-distance vehicles because of the space they take up and the need to stop for hours to recharge so for this sort of need hydrogen is being explored as an alternative. (Pursuing a different direction, an Israeli company called ElectReon is pioneering the laying of subterranean cables that can charge vehicles as they drive along).

Hydrogen research is focusing on electrolyzers and fuel cells.

Fuel cells are pieces of equipment within which electrolyzers use electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. To date the electric current used in electrolysis has been supplied by fossil fuels, but these are being replaced with cheaper, less polluting, renewable sources such as solar energy.

A CFY Fuel Cell Stack during the opening of one of the largest battery research institutes in Germany, the ‘Battery Innovation and Technology Center’ (BITC) of the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems, IKTS, in Arnstadt, Germany, July 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

When power is needed, to drive a car, for example, the hydrogen and oxygen are reunited within the fuel cell via a catalyst which sparks an electrochemical reaction between the two that creates energy.

Fuel cell systems are clean and quiet, and do not need to be recharged like batteries, but go on producing electricity for as long as hydrogen is available.

They can achieve an energy density that is 10 times higher than some of the market’s best batteries, meaning they can last ten times longer or enable a vehicle to drive the same distance while leaving a far lower carbon footprint.

But there are still serious obstacles to overcome to make the technology cost effective. Platinum, used in many catalyzers, for example, can make fuel cells more expensive to produce than drilling, transporting and refining fossil fuels. Fuel cells also need to become more robust.

A senior Energy Ministry official told The Times of Israel, “We do see a place for hydrogen in the future, but at present it is still expensive and not economically worthwhile for most applications.”

He went on, “At the moment, storage via hydrogen is less than 50% efficient and batteries do the job better. Hydrogen is still not ready for full commercial deployment, but we and others are investing in it so that it will become so.”

Israel’s Fuel Cell Consortium

Lior Elbaz, an Israeli chemical engineer and associate professor at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, is currently a visiting scientist for the second time at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Best known for developing the US atomic bomb, the lab is today leading research on fuel cells.

After his first stint there for postdoctoral research, Elbaz returned to Israel and persuaded the Prime Minister’s Office (which coordinates the inter-ministerial Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Initiative) to let him bring some of the best minds from all of Israel’s universities together under a single Fuel Cells Consortium. Today, 12 researchers from across the country are cooperating on projects to improve fuel cell durability and power and to cut their costs.

Lior Elbaz, associate professor at Bar Ilan University and head of the Israeli Fuel Cells Consortium. Courtesy, (Prof Elbaz)

Elbaz’s own laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, for example, has developed solar-energy-driven fuel cells that will hopefully be on the market for home power within the next three to five years. Elbaz says that they last three to four times longer than market competitors and have a carbon footprint that is four to five times smaller. The system will enable a house to become energy self-sufficient and to channel excess power into the national grid.

With support from the Israel Innovation Authority and the Defense Ministry’s research arm, the 12 researchers are now ready to put ideas into practice by creating an industrial-academic consortium with two of the leading Israeli fuel cell companies, GenCell and PO-CellTech.

Bringing the price down

In a separate innovation, not connected to the Fuel Cell Consortium, researchers at the Grand Technion Energy Program at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, in northern Israel, have focused on electrolysis, the process  that drives the chemical reaction, pioneering a method that separates hydrogen from oxygen in several steps in a technique that uses electricity more efficiently.

From Right: Dr. Hen Dotan, Prof. Avner Rothschild, Dr. Avigail Grader and Prof Gideon Grader of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. (Courtesy, the Technion)

According to Prof. Gideon Grader, former dean of the Technion’s Chemical Engineering Department, doing so will improve the efficiency of electrolysis from around 70%- 75% today toward 95% and halve the capital investment needed.

The scientists behind this advance — Prof. Grader, Prof. Avner Rothschild of the Materials Science and Engineering Department, Hen Dotan and Avigail Landman (a doctoral student when the research was being done), have since joined up with some of the business brains behind the popular apps Viber, Juno and iMesh, among them Talmon Marco, to create H2PRO for the commercial development of the product.

The South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai and the massive Japanese business group, Sumitomo, have already bought in. 

Harnessing plants

One of the most intriguing and unusual techniques for creating hydrogen has come from research being carried out by Prof. Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University in collaboration with Prof. Kevin Redding of the University of Arizona and students Andrey Kanygin and Yuval Milrad.

Prof. Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University, who is collaborating with Prof. Kevin Redding of the University of Arizona and students Andrey Kanygin and Yuval Milrad, on a method of tapping plants for electricity. (Courtesy, Iftach Yacoby)

In what sounds like science fiction, the team has successfully used a plant to generate electricity and create hydrogen, as reported earlier this year in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

“Every living green thing is a chemical factory,” Yacoby told The Times of Israel. “Just like solar panels, plants and algae use chlorophyll to take the sun’s power and change it into an electrical current.”

The team’s breakthrough has been to pinpoint the source of that electrical current in the cells of micro algae, and then to attach to that source, via genetic modification, the enzyme hydrogenaze. Thus equipped, the algae have started to produce hydrogen in a process that is totally sustainable and clean.

Prof. Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University examines a photobioreactor during research into the capacity of plants to generate electricity, June 11, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Yacoby said, “Our most optimistic assessment is that hydrogen produced by plants will [one day] be equal in economic value to grain and that these plants will become as important for our energy security as grain [such as wheat] is for our food security.”

Storing hydrogen

Developing hydrogen-based storage for sustainable energy harnessed from sources such as the sun could be a key to resolving one of the biggest problems of renewable energy — that it is not provided when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

At present, the energy requirements for hydrogen storage are very costly. High pressure tanks are needed to compress the volume of hydrogen as a gas. As the gas only turns to liquid at  −252.9°C (−423°F), storing and transporting it as liquid (as does the new Mercedes-Benz GEnH2 heavy truck announced last month) means energy intensive cooling systems and sophisticated insulation.

Israeli company GenCell, whose staff includes many veterans of the Apollo and Mir space projects, has developed a way of using hydrogen by storing it in ammonia for off-grid and backup power that can be used across a range of markets. Ammonia comprises hydrogen and nitrogen. When the hydrogen is needed, it is separated off from the nitrogen, which safely evaporates into the air, and used by the company’s fuel cell generator to create electricity.

The GenCell A5 off-grid power solution can run 24×7 for an entire year on a single 12-ton tank of ammonia and can be easily deployed at any rural telecom base station. (Courtesy)

But ammonia also needs pressure to keep it in liquid form.

Prof David Milstein of the Weizmann Institute. (YouTube screenshot)

At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, a team led by Israel Prize laureate Prof. David Milstein has found a solution for hydrogen storage that requires no pressure, uses commonly available organic liquids such as ethylene glycol (also known as antifreeze) and employs a much cheaper metal in the catalyzer than platinum. The liquids can also be regenerated by the addition of hydrogen gas and can be stored in this form indefinitely under ambient conditions. Proof of concept is complete and future plans are to turn the scientific development into a technological reality for hydrogen storage, generation and regeneration.

Israel and the hydrogen market

On a commercial level, Israel has one water-splitting company, H2PRO, and two fuel cell companies — GenCell and PO-CellTech, the latter a company of Elbit Systems. GenCell, for example, is already supplying backup fuel cells to Mexico City’s underground transportation system.

All the main Israeli fuel companies are looking to a hydrogen future. Sonol plans to set up the first hydrogen refueling station within the next three years. Paz is investing in GenCell, alongside the electronic component manufacturing giant TDK and Israeli entrepreneur Benny Lamda. The Bazan Oil Refineries in the Haifa Bay, whose days there appear to be numbered, has established an innovation center, has shares in H2PRO and is looking to become a serious actor in the hydrogen market. Even the state-owned company Petroleum & Energy Infrastructures Ltd. (PEI), which is responsible for Israel’s fuel infrastructure, is working on a strategy for large-scale hydrogen storage.

A helping hand from government

Already in 2011, Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office launched the Fuel Choices Initiative, an umbrella body that brings ministries, companies and academics together and coordinates all aspects of research and academic and commercial development in alternatives to fossil fuels.

The Initiative includes the Israel National Research Center for Electrochemical Propulsion (INREP), which funds R&D, from academic research through to pilot and demonstration projects. Bringing scientists together from all Israel’s universities, the center aims to advance research in electric vehicles, batteries, and fuel cell technology for transportation. The Innovation Authority supports Israeli investors and technology companies working in the field.

The Eviation electric airplane model at the Israel Fuel Choices Initiative summit in Tel Aviv on November 3, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The government also helped to fund the creation of the Israeli Center for Research Excellence (ICORE). An offshoot, the solar fuel ICORE led by Prof. Gideon Grader, brought 40 researchers together from several of the top academic institutions in the country, some of them specialists in hydrogen technology.

And the Energy Ministry funds projects, among them Sonol’s planned hydrogen fuel station (a grant of NIS 4.2 million, or $1.2 million), three projects to research hydrogen storage (NIS 3.6 million, or $1 million, over three years), and the development of a hydrogen-fueled light aircraft (NIS 1.6 million, or $470,000) by a company called Eviation.

“I think we’ll have hydrogen refueling stations by 2030,” predicted Grader. “There’s already talk about regulation. But we’ll see it in other places first, mainly the Far East. In Israel, things move slowly.”