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.

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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 a Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy and has been developing power, thermal, and fluid systems since 1982.  He has a passion for the business and engineering of technology development and its integration into commercial products. Matt was the Sector Manager for Energy and Materials at NASA Glenn Research Center where he worked for over 30 years.  He has also co-founded or been a key contributor to five technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering consulting to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here