Monday, December 4, 2017

Creative Destruction with Hydrogen

You've probably seen something similar to the beginning phrases in the mission statement below, but few would acknowledge what follows after the "...". And yet they often accurately describe the actual behavior at many organizations of all types, sizes, market sector, and geographic location. There's a pervasive tendency to smother creativity and ignore emerging trends as any organization evolves. Legacy rules and processes replace logical problem solving; parochial groupthink crowds out new data and opportunities; personal risk avoidance overrides bold leadership.

There's an antidote for this malady that management pioneer Peter Drucker made into the title of one of his books in 1985: innovation and entrepreneurship. It can be applied anywhere, but requires the right conditions to thrive. And there is a sometimes maddeningly stochastic quality to its successful implementation that correlates to a variety of factors that are only apparent in hindsight. Most importantly, it must be nurtured more than managed, which may be one reason for its ethereal nature in modern organizations.

Much has been written on this topic by far more qualified sources, but there are two aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship that are core precepts to our vision at Isotherm Energy:
  1. The entrepreneurial opportunity for an innovation to flourish can take decades to incubate; and then suddenly explode when some combination of technological, cultural, public policy, and other parameters change to unlock its potential in the marketplace. These changes are sometimes subtle - and often appear unrelated in isolation - but together create a tipping point that fuels the creative destruction mechanism that Joseph Schumpeter articulated in 1942.
  2. The seeds of the most disruptive innovations often come from another industry, sector, or other field of endeavor. Needs, goals and objectives from disparate domains necessarily drive creativity in different directions. This results in significant advancements that can be virtually invisible outside their domain, especially in sectors that are highly siloed. Then at some point, the previously unseen is suddenly seen, and an entrepreneurial perspective connects the dots to unleash the innovation in its new market.
Examples of these two forces at work can be found in the technological history that underpins the current sustainable energy industry. Wind harnessing machines, for example, date back to at least the time of ancient Greece (ignoring sails that reach even further back into antiquity). But their use for electricity wasn't possible until the invention of the electric generator. One of the first wind turbines for this use was built circa 1887 by Charles Brush in Cleveland, Ohio with a 12 kW "dynamo" (see photo below).  NASA was enlisted to improve the technology during the energy crisis (1974 to mid-eighties); and advances in aerodynamics, materials, tribology, structures, manufacturing, and a host of other improvements from multiple domains were applied. Public policy and new business models for the capex and opex of wind turbine installations were also critical enablers for their rapid growth in the energy sector. The elapsed time from initial electric generating demonstration to full energy market adoption: 130 years and counting.

As another example, the photoelectric effect was observed and studied throughout the 1800s, and finally explained by Einstein on a quantum basis in 1905. The initial significant use of photovoltaics was in the space program based on advances in solar cells at Bell Labs (the research arm of a telephone company) in the 1950s. A photo of the Telstar satellite launched in 1962 with solar cells for power generation is shown below. Spacecraft remained the largest user of solar cells until the aforementioned energy crisis pushed the technology into the energy sector in the mid-1970s. Over the following decades, R&D from many fields and disciplines continued to improve the performance, and expand the embodiments, of solar cells. New materials, deposition methods, junctions, manufacturing, assembly, and a host of other advances brought the technology to its current state of the art. The elapsed time from first significant commercial use in space to full energy market adoption in the energy sector: 67 years and counting.

A final example is the history of battery technology. Benjamin Franklin was purported to have coined the term "battery" referring to a set of capacitors he used with his experiments on electricity circa 1749. It was Alessandro Volta, however, who invented the electrochemical battery that most modern versions trace their earliest lineage to, and published the results in 1791. Various chemistries have been subsequently developed with improved performance along multiple parameters. Thomas Edison developed and strongly advocated batteries as the primary power plant for automobiles (see photo below from 1913), but lost out to the internal combustion engine in the marketplace. NASA and the aerospace industry used batteries for a variety of functions in power systems, including the storage of energy during the sunlit portion of an orbit for use during the shaded portion of the orbit. Battery improvements have continued in far ranging domains of applications and research, culminating in the dominant lithium-ion chemistry currently being scaled to vehicle and energy storage applications. The elapsed time from first significant commercial demonstration as the primary power source in a car to full market adoption: over 100 years and counting.

Hydrogen energy storage is following a similar historical trajectory. First discovered as a discrete substance by Henry Cavendish in the late 1700s, hydrogen has followed a circuitous path of discovery and application in a variety of fields. It's primary large scale commercial use was in the petroleum and chemical industry where it's still a critical element of fossil fuel upgrading processes. Various other industrial processes - including applications as wide ranging as food preparation and semiconductors - use hydrogen. Although it's been demonstrated in nearly every type of internal combustion engine as a replacement for fossil fuels, it's primary use for power and propulsion has been in the aerospace industry. The Atlas-Centaur was the first rocket to store liquid hydrogen in its upper stage (see its launch of Surveyor 1 in 1966 below); and the Apollo program also used hydrogen fuel cells to provide power, heat and water. Use of ever larger quantities of liquid hydrogen by NASA continued with the Saturn upper stages (Apollo) and the Space Shuttle; and a new record breaking liquid hydrogen storage system is being designed for the Space Launch System currently under development.

We at Isotherm Energy have been part of this hydrogen history in the aerospace and defense sector for more than three decades, and now believe the global marketplace is at the cusp of a critically important transition to a hydrogen energy storage architecture. Like wind turbines, solar cells, and batteries; hydrogen technology has been incubating for decades in many domains. Particularly in aerospace and defense, hydrogen systems have demonstrated technological advancements that are not well known in other market sectors. Emerging megatrends in the energy market, worldwide public policy, geopolitical shifts, climate change, and diminishing potable water supplies are quickly driving the energy sector to the tipping point for hydrogen energy storage.

In upcoming posts, I'll be delving deeper into specific aerospace-derived hydrogen system technologies most relevant to the energy sector, along with the economic business case for market adoption. But ultimately, the greatest challenges will be addressing those unspoken mission statements from the beginning of this post. Disruptive innovation, and radical shifts in the sources of revenue, always challenge the status quo and those most vested in it. Only a bold entrepreneurial perspective can unleash the creative destruction potential of hydrogen energy storage.

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems since 1982. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been involved in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Path to Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction (Part 2)

It's been nearly a year and a half since I wrote Part 1 on this topic. At that time, the global community had finally reached a strong consensus on the need for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the overarching goals as outlined in the Paris Agreement of December, 2015. The forward focus was on defining objectives and strategies that each country needed to pursue in order to meet those goals.

Global Temperature Change (source: U.S. Global Change Research Program)

As the rest of the world has continued down this existentially critical path together, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement to plumb the depths of incompetence and hypocrisy in energy policy. A case in point is the sycophantic embrace of high carbon emission energy sources, and proposals to prop up noncompetitive power plants with involuntary subsidies from energy consumers and taxpayers. It's interesting to note that competitive pricing was used for decades as a weapon to hamstring the development and adoption of renewable energy. Now the sword is cutting the other way, and some vested interests in legacy systems are crying foul.

Recent changes in U.S. environmental and natural resources policies are equally alarming. Many emerging countries have quickly learned (relative to developed nations' historical timelines) the high intrinsic and extrinsic costs of ignoring the environmental impacts of industrialization, and have adapted their policies accordingly. Meanwhile, the U.S. appears to be on a nihilistic path to unwind decades of environmental protections and return to the era of poisoned water sources, dangerous air quality, and the destruction of irreplaceable resources.

Against this political backdrop, the recent release of the Climate Science Special Report by the U.S. federal government may seem implausibly ironic. Authors of the report include experts from NOAA, NASA, DOE, leading scientific agencies, and academia. A few selected highlights from the report [1]:
  • Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe.
  • Over the next few decades (2021–2050), annual average temperatures are expected to rise by about 2.5°F for the United States under all plausible future climate scenarios.
  • Thousands of studies conducted by researchers around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor.

  • Global average sea level has risen by about 7–8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993, and are expected to continue to rise by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out.

  • Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase. Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent.
  • The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.
  • Annual trends toward earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States and these trends are expected to continue.
  • The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally. Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century

  • The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both global average temperature and sea level were significantly higher than today.
  • Continued growth in CO2 emissions over this century and beyond would lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years.

So what is (or should be) the path forward for the U.S. now? For the individuals and organizations across many sectors - along with some state and local governments - that are continuing to advance sustainability policies in step with the rest of the global community? Or for that matter, those that are waiting to see how the tragedy unfolds before making any commitments? And what about the organizations and individuals that will never support anything that challenges their position of market dominance, political leverage, perceived status, or personal identity and beliefs?

One can envision a spectrum anchored at one end by facts and data ("truth"), and anchored at the opposite end by deliberate manipulation ("doublespeak"). In the middle of the spectrum, closer to truth, is reasoned interpretation ("informed opinion"). It's mirror opposite, closer to manipulation, is self-serving propaganda ("baseless opinion"). At the present time in the U.S., we seem to be fighting a pitched battle on many fronts in the fog at the doublespeak end of this spectrum.

If we are to make critically important progress on energy and environment - and many other vital areas of national policy - we need to ground ourselves in the facts and data end of the spectrum. Then our debates can evolve around the reasoned interpretation of those truths to arrive at a consensus strategy. Above all else, we must move away from the doublespeak end of the spectrum and refuse to engage with the manipulators who thrive there. The alternative is to continue arguing in the fog until we forget which direction the truth lies in, or worse, lose the will to find our way back to it.

[1] "Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment", U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 2017.

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems since 1982. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been involved in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Wright-Patterson AFB Hosts Thermal System Modeling Course

Matt Moran, Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy, taught his two day course on thermal system modeling at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) on Sep 11-12, 2017. Civilian and military engineers involved in spacecraft thermal control attended the course.

Below is a screeenshot from one of the many application examples presented to demonstrate how to use the techniques taught in the course. This model was created for a USAF solar orbit transfer vehicle concept for boosting satellites into higher orbit to extend their useful life. A solar concentrator is used to drive a Thermoacoustic Stirling Heat Engine (TASHE) based on DOE technology, which in turn powers a two stage pulse tube cryocooler based on NIST technology. The cryocooler, along with other advanced thermal management techniques, maintains the hydrogen propellant in cryogenic liquid condition. When the SOTV attaches to the spacecraft being boosted, the solar concentrator is articulated to be used for its secondary function - heating the hydrogen as it passes through a nozzle for propulsion. The TASHE and integrated cryocooler were designed, built and successfully tested based in part on the results from this model.

Another example application was a cryogenic system design tool originally created for the Missile Defense Agency for a space-based laser concept (see screenshot below). This model performs engineering trades and optimization based on: orbital sink temperatures, insulation configuration, fluid type, operating temperatures and pressures, tank material and structures, tank geometry, and active cooling options. The versatility of the model allowed its continued use for a variety of other projects.

In addition to aerospace applications, Isotherm Energy has leveraged its experience with power and propulsion systems to address emerging energy sector challenges. Many of the capabilities shown in the above models have direct application in sustainable energy systems, such as: solar concentrators, heat engines, combined heat & power, and energy storage (e.g. hydrogen, compressed air, liquid air, liquid nitrogen, etc.)

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems since 1982. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been involved in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Largest Liquid Hydrogen Dewar Tank (Ever)

NASA Kennedy Space Center Liquid Hydrogen Dewar Tank (credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Isotherm Energy has been awarded a subcontract to provide support for development of the largest hydrogen dewar tank in history at the NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC). As previously reported by NASA, the new dewar will hold well over one million gallons of liquid hydrogen and is 50% larger than the current record holder that supported space shuttle launches for 30 years (see above).

A primary focus of Isotherm Energy’s support is the analysis, design and integration of a new technology that eliminates hydrogen loss during storage. Shawn Quinn, assistant program manager of NASA KSC Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO), explained how the dewar and its unique capabilities will support the new Space Launch System 
[1], “…GSDO will fill the rocket's core stage and interim cryogenic upper stage with hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid hydrogen. An important feature of the new zero boil-off technology is the potential to reduce long-term energy costs and liquid hydrogen commodity costs."

This key capability will build upon previous research demonstrations done by NASA to investigate an integrated system that can provide liquefaction, propellant densification, and zero boil-off. “The goal would be to integrate the unit's heat exchange system into the new tank, saving GSDO money by eliminating the loss of hydrogen”, according to Bill Notardonato, principal investigator for the 33,000 gallon demonstration unit (shown below) [2]. “By accomplishing zero boil-off of liquid hydrogen, we could save one dollar in hydrogen for every 20 cents spent on electricity to keep it cooled.”

(Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston)

The successful design and operation of a liquid hydrogen storage system at this scale with zero boil-off, liquefaction and densification capabilities has far reaching implications even beyond the space program. For example, Isotherm Energy has developed a hydrogen energy storage architecture and associated system development software for renewable power sources (among other applications). The demonstrated ability to economically eliminate hydrogen losses for such a system – not to mention liquefy gaseous hydrogen and subcool the resulting liquid – would be a significant game changer.

[1] “Ultra-Cold Storage – Liquid Hydrogen May Be Fuel of the Future”, Amanda Griffin and Linda Herridge, NASA KSC, Dec 14, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems since 1982. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been involved in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here