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UD unveils new hydrogen research center

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Officials cut the ribbon on the Center for Clean Hydrogen at the University of Delaware on Wednesday morning. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

NEWARK – Delaware’s past may have been built on inventions like Teflon, nylon, Kevlar and more, but its future may involve the most common element on the planet: hydrogen.

The gas is at the heart of advancing green energy technology, including fuel cells that could be used to power commercial and passenger vehicles and in electrolyzers, which could produce the gas without the harmful greenhouse gas emissions common with energy production today.

To ensure that the First State is at the forefront of the emerging industry, the University of Delaware unveiled the Center for Clean Hydrogen, a public-private partnership that will invest in the advancement of hydrogen technologies based at the former Fraunhofer labs in the Delaware Technology Park in Newark.

The center is backed by millions in federal appropriations and will be led by Yushan Yan, the chair of UD’s chemical and biomolecular engineering program and a researcher who has worked on fuel cell technology for decades.

Yushan Yan, chair of UD’s chemical and biomolecular engineering program, will lead the Center for Clean Hydrogen. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“Avoiding the climate crisis is the challenge of the century. To meet the challenge, we need to accelerate the transition to a net zero energy future, and this is exactly what we have set out to do at this new Center for Clean Hydrogen. To fully decarbonize our economy, solar and wind will lead the way, but clean hydrogen is essential for eliminating more than 30% of the global carbon emissions,” Yan explained at a Wednesday ribbon cutting for the center.

The center includes three other initial partners for the university: Wilmington-based chemical company Chemours, which already has a research-and -development center at UD’s STAR Campus; New York-based fuel cell company Plug Power, which has partnered previously with Chemours; and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the federally funded R&D center based in Colorado. West Virginia University, which also works with Chemours, will also reportedly be involved, and more partners are expected.

Yan’s work at UD, as well as a spinout company Versogen, has focused on anion-exchange membranes while Chemours’ legacy Nafion product is a proton-exchange membrane. Between the two, they expect to cover the advancements in the hydrogen industry.

Researchers from the private companies will pair with faculty and students from the universities to work on making these integral membranes efficient and cost-effective at scale.

“This center will do the testing and get feedback so that we can move faster to the next generation [of fuel cell membranes],” Yan explained.

The center will require significant renovations in order to convert Fraunhofer’s former plant sciences R&D center to a fuel cell R&D and manufacturing space. Yan said he hopes to have significant operations beginning in about six months.

The Center for Clean Hydrogen at the University of Delaware will advance fuel cell and hydrogen technology. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Unlike gasoline, coal or natural gas used in combustion engines, hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to produce electricity without a carbon dioxide byproduct that would harm the atmosphere. It’s major challenges are a lack of infrastructure to fuel next-generation vehicles and the need to produce “green” hydrogen, or splitting oxygen and hydrogen from water using renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

The Biden administration has invested billions of dollars to overcome those challenges as part of its strategy to combat climate change, including $8 billion for “hydrogen hubs” around the country to increase the supply, infrastructure, and research into hydrogen power. That funding is expected to be very competitive with a number of Northeast and Rocky Mountain states already banding together in two different partnerships on proposals.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), the only chemist in the Senate, said the launch of the UD center will make Delaware more competitive in that competition.

“There is independent value to continue doing cutting-edge scientific research,” he said, noting that a community of companies have already grown in Delaware. “Having $13 million appropriated and delivered today and another $15 million in the [FY 2023] bill we’re going to pass in December significantly strengthens our argument for being a hydrogen hub,” Coons told Delaware Business Times.

The senator said that he envisions a hydrogen hub pitch for Delaware also including southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, so officials could tout the presence of fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy sources. Delaware also benefits from the Interstate 95 corridor, regional rail and international air service, as well as an existing unionized energy workforce.

“What [the U.S. Department of Energy says] they want in a hub, we’ve literally got all of in this immediate area,” he said.

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