‘MIT Visionary of the Year’ and founder of H2GO energy, Dr. Enass Abo-Hamed speaks to Nick Rice about bringing reliable energy to all
There are few things so easily taken for granted as electricity. It’s up there with air and water as being utterly necessary for life as we know it. Scrabbling around in the kitchen drawers looking for a candle or some matches once in a blue moon during a power cut is an infrequent reminder of how much we just expect electricity to be there.
Yet for 1.2 billion people worldwide, access to an electrical grid is a privilege, not a given. In sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and other developing countries, electrical blackouts and outages are commonplace. Whether they occur during a life-saving operation or when simply trying to warm some food, the frequent loss of power negatively impacts the lives of these populations and greatly inhibits economic development in the countries.
Abo-Hamed and her team developed smart nanomaterials capable of storing porous, solid-state hydrogen at room temperature without the need to pressurize the gas. The team also engineered new hydrogen-based energy storage units that can store five to ten times as much energy as their battery equivalents.
The innovations emerged whilst Abo-Hamed was studying for her PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. She has since received a slew of awards and widespread recognition, including the 2017 Visionary of the Year award from MIT Tech Review Innovators Under 35 Europe and the Best Energy Start-up award at the Global Hello Tomorrow Summit.
Abo-Hamed gained her BSc. and MSc. degrees in applied chemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and as well as running H2GO Power she is also the Cambridge University Energy Champion, the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellow and a technology expert consultant to the European Commission.
With H2GO Power Abo-Hamed is keen to harness the technology she and her team have developed to facilitate the reliable distribution of power in countries where energy supply is intermittent. Speaking to Impact4All from the west coast of the USA, Abo-Hamed is incisive, articulate and brimming with passion for her work.
What was the spark that grew into H2GO Power?
It all started with my PhD invention, which I thought at the time was an exciting find. It led to researching where this could fit. After researching the market with a group of friends and professionals, the discovery of what impact this could make sparked H2GO Power.
Can you summarise the technology behind H2GO Power and what it’s capable of?
H2GO Power is an energy storage company. We work on storing renewable energy, which today is cheaper to waste than to store in batteries via an alternative storage solution to conventional batteries – Hydrogen batteries!
Storing energy as hydrogen within smart nanomaterials in containers have performance advantages of five to ten times more storage capacity, economical benefits of 30 per cent lower cost that lithium-ion batteries, plus environmental benefits such as zero-carbon emission solution.
We designed plug and play storage containers for off-grid applications that can allow for round the clock energy supply in the developing world. This solution can reduce the dependency on polluting diesel as an energy source, which also comes at premium prices to developing countries. It can enable leapfrogging to a reliable energy supply in the developing world without having to build infrastructure.
Are you ever deterred by the fact that investment in non-lithium-ion battery technology is tiny in comparison to the capital invested in lithium-ion?
Sometimes. The investments out there are not distributed well enough to catalyse the formation of a sustainable ecosystem. Investors seem to be buying into the hype of Li-ion, which is a commercially mature technology and it works, but not for all applications, nor at all scales. Li-ion batteries have technical limitations that are overlooked today.
Other technologies like hydrogen storage works for storage where Li-ion batteries fail. Investments are essential to bring them to commercial maturity so their potential can be exploited.
Do you think that the incremental advances in lithium-ion technology are insufficient in face of the grave environmental threats facing humanity?
There are a few points here that must be brought up to answer this question. Incremental advances in Li-ion technology has the potential to drive increased batteries adoption, which will reduce emissions if the energy stored comes from the sun or the wind. This indeed has a positive environmental impact if we look at one side of the coin.
But there is a flip side too. If we focus only on Li-ion batteries for storing clean energy, that means we increase the dependency on metals that we mine from nature to make these batteries. The increase in demand means driving depletion of metals like lithium, nickel and cobalt from natural reserves.
Furthermore, there isn’t an efficient and affordable way yet to recycle Li-ion batteries. Li-ion have short lifetimes as of today and when they degrade in performance it is cheaper to dump than to recycle. This can have a significantly negative impact on the environment if adoption of batteries grows uncontrolled.
Elon Musk’s commitment to lithium-ion batteries has seen $5 billion invested, do you think non-lithium investment backing and subsequent technology will catch up one day?
I think they should. Within a few years major investments will face the fact that Li-ion batteries degrade after five years and new investments will be needed for sustainable storage.
What are the biggest environmental challenges we face at the moment?
Climate change and all that comes with it – from extreme hot and cold weather to climate migrations, droughts, fires, floods, melting glaciers and drowning islands.
Can better battery technology save us from ecological disaster?
Batteries are only one element in the complex equation of avoiding ecological disaster. Better battery technology alone will not prevent an ecological disaster if we don’t take into consideration other factors of paramount importance, like the source of energy we consume on a global scale, the efficiency and social responsibility in consuming energy, the food and the water wasted globally.
What is the ultimate mission with your work on batteries?
Offering a better alternative to existing batteries with technical limitations at large scale, that is affordable and more sustainable. We know there’s a lot of work to do in the developing parts of the world to provide sustainable and clean energy solutions that are reliable and can eliminate blackouts and still be affordable. This is a major mission for us, as energy is an enabler for development and prosperity.
When do you think we’ll see a quantum leap forward with non-lithium-ion batteries?
Like with any other technology that made it to market with a strong impact, it takes long cycles of developments and a few years. Now that we have hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road, driven to commercialisation by Toyota, the largest car manufacturer, I want to believe that we are closer than ever to seeing accelerated progress on this type of new technology – I’d say maybe five years from now.
Does it ever feel to you like the majority of tech firms and entrepreneurs are driven by accruing huge sums of money rather than solving social and economic problems, including environmental damage?
This question is a good one and also a hard one to answer. Being part of the eco-system of young and ambitious entrepreneurs, I meet many entrepreneurs who are motivated to change the world in a very positive way. They want to solve standing societal issues and improve lives rather than make money.
But if you take into account that a great entrepreneur with the highest morals and talent will never succeed in growing a business without a proper amount of money – often driven by investors with focus on returns – then a balance isn’t very easy to achieve.
When the day comes where a match between entrepreneurs and investors is optimal on the purpose, I believe tech firms will have more important roles than governments in solving social, economic and environmental problems.
According to the 15,364 scientists that issued an open warning letter to humanity, most of the world’s electricity can – and must – be produced by low-carbon sources by 2050. Renewables must grow from a 30 per cent share today to 80 per cent of power generation by 2050, with fossil fuel energy phased out by 2100. Do you think it will happen?
I think there is a lot of room for hope that this is achievable – yes. With the cost of renewable energy being lower than ever before and the pace of adoption at peak, the momentum is irreversible to go back to fossil fuel energy in the future.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles to growing the renewable energy industry?
These days storage is the barrier, given the intermittency of renewables. Renewables aren’t reliable enough to provide round the clock clean power. If the economics of storage can bridge this gap, then that will be a remarkable milestone for the energy industry.
What do you think the renewable energy market will look like in ten years?
Looking at the trends, the renewable energy market looks better today than ever before and it’s in a state of continuous growth. I do believe that we will continue to make progress and the highest adoption rates of renewable energy will be in the developing world, due to the lack of infrastructure and the high dependency on imported fossil fuels.
What are the things which give you cause for despair and what are the things that make you optimistic?
The same causes for despair are the source of my motivation. If we look at all the problems in the world: poverty, wars, widespread diseases, political instabilities etc. It’s easy to feel lost and powerless against all these factors.
These causes are the same causes that make me optimistic as it focuses my generation of entrepreneurs, young leaders and ambitious individuals to look for solutions and push them forward. I choose to focus on energy.