The Department of Energy (DOE) is awarding a $3.7 million grant to a research team led by faculty from the University of Virginia, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced during a press conference on UVa Grounds on Thursday.
This grant is part of a $540 million effort to include researchers from 54 higher education institutions and 11 national laboratories in the race to reach the Biden administration’s sustainability goals, which include creating net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reducing the cost of hydrogen to one dollar per kilogram by 2031.
“Last year as a nation we spent $150 billion in clean-up after extreme weather events,” Granholm said. “Those extreme climate events are obviously caused by carbon pollution, and carbon pollution needs to be reduced. The way to reduce that is to find ways to have zero carbon-emitting energy sources, which brings us to hydrogen.”
The grant, formally titled “Chemical and Materials Sciences to Advance Clean Energy Technologies and Low-Carbon Manufacturing,” will fund research into technologies for efficient energy production like carbon storage and green hydrogen extraction methods.
The grant recipients at UVa will use the award to research their project, “Fundamental Studies of Catalytic Sites and Catalyst/Membrane Integrations for Advanced Hydroxide Exchange Membrane Electrolyzers.”
The team will be led by UVa chemistry faculty, including the Zhang Lab’s principal investigator and associate professor and award-winning researcher Dr. Sen Zhang; Commonwealth professor of chemistry and leader of the Gunnoe Research Group T. Brent Gunnoe; associate professor and founder of the Machan Research Group, Charles Machan and assistant professor Huiyuan Zhu.
A group of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral engineers and computer science experts from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Columbia University and the University of Delaware will collaborate with the experts at UVa for the duration of the grant project.
Hydrogen energy can be used to power electric cars, provide long-term battery storage, supply electricity and heat homes, all while producing zero carbon emissions. The team at UVa will continue its research on efficient hydrogen production methods that will eventually reduce the cost of the green fuel source.
This is not the DOE’s first generous grant for Zhang and Gunnoe, who both have backgrounds in clean energy and catalysis to improve manufacturing processes and energy production.
The UVa researchers have led other multi-million-dollar projects that were funded by the DOE while working in collaboration with experts from Caltech, Princeton, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Gunnoe served as director of the DOE-funded Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization when UVa hosted the research group from 2009 to 2014.
“Investing in clean energy is one of our top priorities at UVa, and figuring out how to produce green hydrogen in a sustainable way would be a game changer in the field of clean energy,” said UVa President Jim Ryan.
“There are many who would say that the government can’t solve all problems on its own, but it can absolutely be a critical partner with universities and with industry to tackle some of the largest problems that we’re facing in the country, and the Department of Energy has been one of the most important partners to the University in this respect.”
Granholm also announced that the DOE is dedicating more than $400 million to 43 new and existing Energy Frontier Research Centers, also known as energy hubs at higher education institutions across the country.
Led by 28 universities and nine national laboratories, the centers will bring together multi-disciplinary scientific research teams to study topics ranging from energy storage to quantum information science.
“The hubs will be partnered with somebody with a university, and they are going to be regional hubs. And we are looking for hydrogen that is not producing carbon, CO2 pollution, [or] carbon pollution,” Granholm said. “For example, we know that two of the hubs will be required to be producing hydrogen from natural gas.”
According to Granholm, the hubs will be created in partnership with the communities where they reside, particularly in areas that have been disproportionately harmed negatively affected by carbon pollution.
That equity will be a competitive consideration in these hubs, meaning the DOE is looking for hubs that are designed in partnership with the communities that will benefit from a hydrogen economy.
Community involvement expectations from the DOE include participation from private sector representatives in regions where hubs are located. Private sector players should match 50 percent of the DOE’s contributions to the hub to ensure full operation.
“This knowledge will lead to new technology and new product, a new future,” Dr. Zhang said. “That’s why the way to generate the best knowledge — to generate the best of science — is [in] university and also National Labs. So, university and National Labs work together very often for the basic energy science to generate new knowledge.”
UVa was Granholm’s final stop on a two-day tour trek through West Central Virginia, where she joined Senator Tim Kaine to visit one of Virginia’s first solar canopies and led a ribbon-cutting for a new plant that will produce transformers that power free-standing electric vehicle charging stations.
President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed earlier this year, delegated $10 billion for building hydrogen hubs throughout the country to deploy technologies that will reduce hydrogen costs and create long-duration battery storage for sources like wind and solar energy.
An additional $62 billion will come from the Department of Energy to fund the various hubs and their efforts to reduce hydrogen and nuclear technology costs.