Texas Tech alumnus Robert Meaney is at the forefront of changing how our world is powered.
It started by chance really.
As Robert Meaney explains it, he was following in his dad's footsteps. A 2008 graduate of Texas Tech University's Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, Meaney followed his father, a welder by trade, into the energy industry.
He was, in his words, “building out a lot of what is now today, the midstream of natural gas fractionation units, pipelines, as well as downstream infrastructure and specialty chemicals,” when, like much of the world, his industry changed due to COVID 19.
Luckily for Meaney, his friend named Eric Smith was doing equity research for the financial community, providing independent review of large capital projects and making cost/schedule forecasts based off satellite images.
With his background in mid-stream natural gas, Meaney joined up with Smith, consulting for clients and introducing them to new and innovative technologies in the renewable space. It was here that they found their core technology that converted methanol into pure hydrogen.
The methanol-to-hydrogen design wasn't new. “It's the oldest new thing you can find,” Meaney joked. But for more than 20 years, methanol-to-hydrogen systems were looked at as possible replacements for diesel engines onboard vehicles.
“We took the technology off the vehicle to deploy it in stationary applications in support of electric-vehicle charging, micro grids, diesel generators and hydrogen fueling, which is what we're doing today,” Meaney explained.
They started a company, Kaizen Clean Energy (KCE), and now they're at the forefront of re-imagining where power comes from.
When it comes to power sources, hydrogen has always been useful. Fuel cells using hydrogen to create electricity have been around for more than a century, but hydrogen power has been riddled with drawbacks.
Transport, storage and safety issues of compressed or cryogenic hydrogen have plagued the industry with high costs and stagnated market use, but the design from Meaney and KCE eliminates much of that risk.
What they're doing is using a mixture of methanol and water to create hydrogen. A 330-gallon tank of the mixture produces about 150 kilograms of hydrogen or 1.6 megawatt-hours of energy. The mixture mitigates many major drawbacks of hydrogen usage. For instance, it can be stored for longer durations, transported long distancesand leverages existing diesel storage, making transportation cheaper and safer.
But the real game changer is size.
“Our hydrogen density is much greater than compressedhydrogen, and it impacts how much we can store and transport,” Meaney explained.
The design from Meaney takes the mixture – which is about 37% water and 63% methanol – and runs it through a reformation system.
“What's unique about this versus all other hydrogen technologies is we have purifier membranes in the bottom of this system that provide fuel-cell grade hydrogen for us,” Meaney said. “So, we don't have to use a Pressure Swing Absorption Unit (PSA). If I were to use a PSA for this system, it would take up a 20-foot container with the space and cost a lot more. So, I get hydrogen production and I get purification in a very compact footprint.”
The hydrogen created can then be used with low-temperature proton-exchange membrane fuel cells, which are becoming more common as stationary power and onboard buses.
For all the complicated language involved, the truth isMeaney and KCE have created a simple micro-grid solution from a mechanical perspective. The simplicity of the design – only two moving parts, a fan and a pump, to go along with the electrical components – keeps the unit low-maintenance and requires little energy expenditure.
“To keep it running takes less than one kilowatt of power,” Meaney said. “So, it's a very small electrical load. Because methanol reforms at less than half the temperature of natural gas, our systems have higher efficiencies and cam ramp to full capacity in about 15 minutes.”
The micro-grid fits into a small container and can be dropped on site at remote locations or in grid-congested areas. The current designs scale from 100 kilowatts to megawatts of power.
One Solution, Multiple Problems
KCE is already providing a solution for multiple industries. They've partnered with Extreme E, an international off-road racing series that is part of Formula 1 and uses spec silhouette electric SUVs to race in remote parts of the world. The first unit KCE is deploying will be at an electric vehicle (EV) fleet-charging location in Los Angeles and has multiple transit agencies they are working with on H2fueling/EV charging applications in California.
“California alone has over 11,000 buses that have to be transitioned to zero emission technology by, I believe,2030,” Meaney said. “11,000. They've converted probably less than 1,000 of those today. And the grid can't handle this electrical demand. This is why we are seeing both H2and EV buses grow on the same site.”
KCE provides a solution. With a mobile, scalable power station, Meaney believes they can adjust to meet the needs of industry and government partners facing power issues.
“Take a Tesla, a Model S, a larger 100-kilowatt hour battery on board,” Meaney explained. “If you use 80% of that battery, you have to charge 80 kilowatt hours. Now your electric socket in your home maybe provides, at max,one kilowatt of power. So, if you have to recharge 80 kilowatt hours, you have to sit there for 80 hours to recharge your Tesla.
“Electric buses, they don't have 100-kilowatt hour packs, they have 600-kilowatt hour packs, and they come back to the yard almost fully drained every night. So, you not only have just 500 kilowatt hours that you have to charge, but you also have 20 other vehicles that have 500 kilowatt hours that need to charge, and they all have to do it in a four to five hour window. Now you're talking about megawatts of power at a depot that maybe had 100 kilowatts of power demand before. And nobody wants to be caught charging electric vehicles with a diesel generator.”
In areas where the power grid can't produce enough electricity to re-charge or power the equipment needed, KCE can provide a micro-grid capable of scaling up from 100-kilowatts into however much power is needed - all while lowering emissions when compared to diesel generators.
“Even with renewable/bio diesel, you cut down on carbon dioxide, but with some, nitrogen oxide and particulate matters actually go up with biodiesel,” Meaney said. “With this, we emit no nitrogen dioxide, no sulfur oxides, no particulate matter. And our hydrogen has the ability to be carbon neutral with what's going on in the maritime sector pushing towards renewable methanol.”
The possibilities are seemingly limitless.
“Project No. 1 is going to be a U.S. trial system,” Meaney said. “Project No. 2 with Extreme E is the one that's atraveling project. Project No. 3 that we're finalizing right now would be a hydrogen refueling station. And then project No. 4 is going to be a megawatt diesel generator replacement, most likely in California.”
Keeping It Close to Home
While the immediate impact from KCE seems to be spreading far and wide, Meaney brought production of the company's micro-grids to West Texas.
Working with NG Resources and BCCK Engineering, the first trial models are being produced in Midland.
While KCE operates out of Houston, Meaney says the benefits of having the work done in West Texas were too great to ignore.
“What we like about Midland, why we're in West Texas, is reliability and availability of not only parts but people,” Meaney said before pointing to one of the workers in the shop. “Shooter in there is a qualified welder, very good sense of quality and a problem solver. But the key is when we source parts in the area, I have to say, we take advantage of the oil and gas industry a little bit here.Because when you're running a rig, uptime and reliability matters. All your vendors are keeping spares upon spares upon spares, right?
“When we're able to go to a vendor and say, ‘Hey, I need a four-panel board rushed to me,' and their answer is, ‘Yeah, sure, we have it in stock ready to go.' If I were to do the same in some other areas outside of here, it may not be in stock.”
The area also offers access to potential future clients. From oil and gas moving away from hydraulic fracking to electric fracking to farmers looking to transition their equipment to electric power, the prospects for the future are bright.
It takes KCE about six months to produce a customized micro-grid solution for a client, but Meaney believes the simplicity of KCE's build with readily available parts will allow the company to scale quickly and cut that lead time in half in the future.
And while working in West Texas offers a number ofbenefits, there is one drawback.
“The only thing about Midland, Texas, it that when we commission this unit here in the next month and a half, there's not really a whole lot of electric vehicles out here to charge on our factory acceptance test,” Meaney said. “So,we're going to have to bring in an oil and gas resistor to dump all the power into.
“So, if you know anybody who wants to come out and get their Tesla's charged, we're happy to do that.”