Non-Thermal Plasma H2, no CO2

Precision H2, a Canadian company, is developing a non-thermal plasma process which disassembles methane (CH4) into hydrogen and carbon black. Note, no CO2!

There are dozens of plasma companies, often focused on medical waste, and some on power (with coal or some waste stream as the feedstock). (See footnote) Usually these are hot plasmas, and tend to be expensive due to the materials problems at high temperature. In a plasma, sometimes called the 4th state of matter, material is very highly ionized by an electrical arc discharge. Lightning is a good example, and many plasma systems are brute force, require a lot of energy, and get very hot.

A so-called “non-thermal” plasma is one in which the electric discharge is controlled and confined. Locally it is extremely hot, but each spark doesn’t last long enough to heat up the surrounding materials. Precision H2 has created a “plasma dissociation reactor”, where the electrical discharge is carefully shaped and especially tailored to the specific job of dismantling methane. The electrical energy goes straight to the molecule, and doesn’t have to get there as heat. (It’s a little bit like cooking with microwaves instead of a conventional oven.)

The methane streaming through the reactor is partly converted to H2, with the carbon dropping out as a nanopowder. The output is then a blend of methane enriched with hydrogen (hythane). In an intriguing twist, this blend can be sent to a fuel cell which will consume the hydrogen, leaving the methane to be cycled back to the reactor. In effect, the fuel cell itself is used to separate out the hydrogen–for its own use. This configuration would produce electricity directly, rather than hydrogen. Pure hydrogen is gotten by using PSA (pressure swing absorption) or membranes to do the separation. Potential partners are already in discussions on both fronts (i.e. fuel cells and purification). Also, hythane can be used directly in engines, to good advantage.

The key is electronics (pulse shaping, and analysis and control of the discharge), and costs for electronics are well understood. Because temperatures remain modest, the reaction chamber can be made inexpensively, and is readily scalable.

There is an energy penalty–not all the “fuel value” of the methane is used, because the carbon itself isn’t oxidized. Instead, since no oxygen is present, no CO2 is produced–think of it as “presequestration”, with resulting GHG and carbon-trading benefits. Also, the carbon is in a valuable form which can be sold, enhancing overall economics. Detailed thermodynamic and financial models have been developed, and the company believes that even today, with “one-off” systems, they can produce hydrogen cost competitively.

The company is raising a round of equity financing.

Contact Dan Fletcher
Precision H2
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

An amazing find can be found at:

“Non-Incineration Medical Waste Treatment Technologies”, an August 2001 report …. explores the environmental and economic impacts, among other considerations, of about 50 specific technologies.

Chapter 4 in particular is an exhaustive review of every technology and nearly every company with a means to destroy hazardous materials. While the focus is on medical waste, most of the technologies also apply to hazardous materials, municipal waste and sludge, biomass, and fossil fuels. Gasification, pyrolysis, plasmas, and many different chemical and electrochemical oxidation and reduction methods are out there, and are being used today at industrial scale. When they can be made to work, the issues are cost, reliability, system longevity, emissions (creation of new hazards, e.g. dioxins), materials handling, feedstock variability, etc. etc. The key is to inject sufficient energy into the material to break the chemical bonds, for example, to get it hot enough for long enough (dwell time).

Firefly Re-invents the Lead Acid Battery

In early May, Caterpillar announced the formation of a new spin-off company called Firefly Energy Inc., whose purpose is to complete the development and commercialization of a dramatically improved lead acid battery technology. The entire research program, people and technology have been transferred out of CAT into the new startup after several years of in-house research. CAT will remain as only a partial investor once there is new financing.

Attempts have been made before to re-invent the lead acid battery, without much success. Prominent among them, Electrosource/Horizon and Bolder Technologies, both of whom ran into obstacles in cost, performance and manufacturability that couldn’t be overcome. . (In Dec 2001, Bolder was acquired out of bankruptcy by Singapore based GP Battery. In Feb 2003, Eagle-Picher announced a new joint to produce the Horizon battery.)

Firefly has high expectations that they’ve got it right. In fact, key personnel from those previous efforts are involved, along with an all star cast of battery industry veterans.

Firefly’s claims include: 1/4 the weight (eliminating 80% of the lead), double life expectancy, 7x charge rate, and manufacturing that is compatible with existing lead acid battery production facilities. It should cost no more than current lead-acid batteries, making it a small fraction of the cost of nickel metal hydride and lithium technologies. Cycle life, even at 80% depth of discharge, is several thousand cycles, one or two orders of magnitude better than conventional lead acid, on a par with the advanced technologies. Two main problems of lead acid, sulfation and corrosion, are all but eliminated. Heat dissipation is excellent, even at the greatly increased charge and discharge rates.

One of the keys to these improvements is a substrate material for the plates that no-one thought to try before. Highly porous, it provides for thousands of times more “cells”, or locations where the reaction can take place. Fourteen patents are already in process, with more to come.

The company plans to license the technology, and to manufacture with partners that already have production lines, co-branding new products that will be priced at or below leading batteries on the market.

They are raising an initial seed round now, with a $2 million “A” round to follow immediately.

Ed Williams, CEO

Energy Efficiency as a Resource

ACEEE National Conference on Energy Efficiency as a Resource
Berkeley CA Jun 9,10

A number of the papers are already posted online (when the author’s name is a link):

This event was a real eye opener. The energy efficiency crowd is on a roll, very much back from near death. These are the champions of Energy Efficiency (EE) and Demand Response (DR, not to be confused with distributed resources) who push for equal treatment of the demand side “resource” alongside generation and supply. In California especially, they feel vindicated by the failure of deregulation, and gleefully describe the end of a “dark age” with the return of rate-base regulation and integrated resource planning (IRP). In this view, reliance on the “market” to deliver the right mix of supply and conservation has been completely discredited.

The emphasis was on California, with two PUC commissioners giving major speeches supporting the basic premise. We heard about recent 3-2 votes to push efficiency as an integral part of a state “action plan”. Various state agencies are pledging to coordinate their efforts. The state’s investor-owned utilities have submitted major plans that go well beyond using the public benefits charge to “procure” energy and capacity from the demand side. Since the utilities are the default/only provider, but don’t have their own generation anymore (they are pipes and wires companies!), they now need to submit detailed resource plans–thus the rebirth of “IRP”.

This all felt like a jump back in time–apparently I hadn’t realized how little deregulation has progressed. Clearly, “prices” haven’t replaced “rates”; “revenue requirement” still has meaning; utilities are still utilities, and a key issue is how to put efficiency investments into the rate base and assure they get a rate of return comparable to generation facilities.

There was, however, a recognition that things would be different — that the intervening experience and lessons learned could be built on. One speaker compared it to a second marriage, where you’re wiser and may have a better chance to get it right. In particular, there’s a lot of support for “decoupling”. This refers to the idea that distribution utilities should not have their cost recovery/revenues tied to throughput of kwhs, but to performance based measures like reliability of service.

The California Action Plan includes goals for 5% of peak demand from efficiency along with renewables, distributed generation, transmission upgrades, and “reliable affordable energy”. California led the nation over the last 20 years in conservation and efficiency, and will again. Cities like San Diego and San Francisco are undertaking their own resource planning efforts as well.

Other areas are proceeding vigorously. In New York, the governor’s office is running a multi-agency Coordinated Electric Demand Reduction Initiative (CEDRI), with a goal of making 600 MW available on short notice. The state’s goal is to create a vigorous market for efficency; 92 ESCOs are operating there currently. The Northwest has a multistate program; Montana has come up with an ambitious approach; the Northeast is active as well (NEDRI). In the midwest, the situation was described as being “several years behind”, since energy is cheap and plentiful there. In Texas, there doesn’t seem to be a problem incorporating demand aspects alongside restructuring. Their markets are set up so that “DR” can compete directly, and as much as 500 MW is in the game.

Another issue receiving a lot of attention is the relationship between “efficiency”, i.e. energy, and “demand response”, i.e. capacity. In many regions, it seems problematic to work these two pieces together, but there was a strong recognition that they are really two sides of the same coin. Chuck Goldman of LBL has been studying the lay of the land in states all across the country, and noted a marked drop in traditional load control and interruptible rate programs–these are practically ‘stranded assets’ — ignored until price spikes appeared. Now there are wildly varying arrangements for retail competition, and for EE and DR, which are rarely coordinated. (

For the rulemaking in Calif for demand response, go to:

There was a lot of support for real time pricing, which must eventually become a reality as the only real mechanism that can send the proper economic signals to consumers. In fact, the Calif plan has it starting in 2004.

Monica Rudman of the Calif Energy Commission reported on how they managed to rush a set of programs together to try to alleviate the demand crunch during the California crisis. The state legislature urgently approved $50 million in August of 2000 and then an additional $327 million in April 2001. The CEC launched a wide array of over a dozen measures with astonishing speed, and almost in time to help. (Efficiency may not take as long to “construct” as generators, but it still has a lead time.)

Art Rosenfeld, former head of energy programs at LBL, and now commissioner on the Calif Energy Commission, is widely viewed as the father of the conservation movement, in California in particular. See

He tells a convincing story about the scope the efficiency resource, citing the example of how refrigerators now consume 1/4 of the energy each (and they’re larger) compared with 20 years ago when “market transformation” efforts and appliance efficiency standards began. This “resource” is now comparable to the entire US hydro or nuclear power contribution to the nation’s energy mix..

There’s a great deal more detail to talk about from this conference, and about this whole subject, than can fit in one UFTO Note. If there’s interest in pursuing any of this in greater detail, please let me know.

By coincidence, this morning’s UtiliPoint IssueAlert was on this very subject! ” Energy Conservation is Now In Vogue”. Go to:
(I hope you are on the list to get this daily commentary. It’s almost always interesting, timely and useful.)


Several months ago I put together a set of references on demand studies. You can download it here (UFTO client password required):


A personal view…. I’m struggling with one aspect of efficiency as a resource– just what kind of a “resource” is it? And why does it exist in the first place? The refrigerator example makes sense as public policy–not too different from needing government to overcome the inability of the “market” to put smog controls in cars. When it comes to “bidding” negawatts into the power market, however, one might reflect that there’s no other instance where a product or service is “unsold” (except maybe in agriculture, and look what a mess that is). If that negawatt is available, then maybe it should have already been taken up. Its existence is purely a result of an existing market imperfection. The question of what demand “would have been” is fundamentally messy, and despite all the brave talk, “Measurement and Verification” (another huge topic of interest at the conference) is never going to feel entirely satisfactory as an answer. Efficiency advocates don’t seem to understand, and aren’t addressing, what critics are uncomfortable with, and they need to.