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Hydrogen and oxygen pulse through thin tubes around a crowded laboratory. Moments before, the gases were combined as water.

From a lab bench inside 3M's Maplewood campus, massive electrical cables connect to metal devices the size of books. A surge of power interacts with water moving through a powder, turning the liquid into gases.

This is green hydrogen, the long-promised clean energy. To bring it to a larger scale and deliver on hydrogen's long-standing promise as the renewable fuel of the future, 3M is investing in the industry and focusing research on lowering costs to make it an economical energy option.

A kilogram of hydrogen contains enough energy to power an average home for a day.

"The problem is a kilogram of green hydrogen is about $4 today," said Bill Weber, business building director at 3M Ventures. "It gets really competitive if we get it down around $1," which is what hydrogen costs when it is made from fossil fuels and would be cheaper than natural gas.

3M — the company behind N95 respirators, Post-it Notes and a litany of electronic and industrial components for phones, cars and manufacturers — is focused on climate technology as it continues to evolve.

This isn't the company's first crack at the alternative energy. It pioneered some of the technology that underpins green hydrogen production, but sold off that business years ago because, Weber said, the market wasn't ready.

3M is betting now is the time to get the company deeply embedded in the potentially revolutionary industry; a wave of federal support for hydrogen, including nearly $1 billion for a "hub" in Minnesota and tax credits, helps.

"It's an era in hydrogen where things are happening both fast and slow," said Tim Yamaya, a corporate entrepreneur at 3M Ventures. "We want to help speed the transition."

Hydrogen flows through tubing inside a laboratory at 3M headquarters in Maplewood on May 22.
Hydrogen flows through tubing inside a laboratory at 3M headquarters in Maplewood on May 22.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Producing and moving hydrogen

This spring, 3M joined a $20 million investment round for EvolOH, a California company that manufacturers electrolyzers, the devices that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

3M is also trying to solve the problem of how to store and transport green hydrogen. It has also partnered with major Korean ship builder HD Hyundai to develop liquid hydrogen storage tanks using glass bubbles 3M makes for insulation.

Liquid hydrogen can be reduced to 1/800th the size of the gas — essential for economical transportation — but it must be held at extremely low temperatures.

"We can only handle natural gas because we have a half-trillion-dollar infrastructure," Bryan Pivovar, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said.

By building up the infrastructure to more cheaply produce and move hydrogen, 3M expects more industries will join the market. More demand will lead to more supply, pushing prices even lower.

However, there remains risk to investing in hydrogen without the guarantee of widespread adoption.

Pivovar called it a "a chicken and the egg problem where you need a chicken and egg at the same time."

"The biggest problem with hydrogen is it's not economical at a small scale, but if there are more players and it's more ubiquitous all of a sudden it can reach that larger scale," he said. "We're at a tipping point."

To reach a goal of hydrogen providing about 15% of global energy needs, Pivovar said current green hydrogen production would need to increase about 500-fold. Some big steps toward that are underway; gigawatt-scale plants could be online by the end of the decade.

"The good news is it's more economical than it ever has been before, or at least less economically painful," Pivovar said.

Meanwhile, the conservative Manhattan Institute calls green hydrogen a "boondoggle," and says small modular nuclear reactors are a better choice for emission-free energy.

Nearly all of the hydrogen produced today is made from natural gas and used in ammonia fertilizer production. 3M sees an opportunity to both switch that production to a more sustainable process and open a pathway to more uses like steelmaking and transportation/fuel cells.

Equipment converts water to hydrogen inside a lab at 3M headquarters in Maplewood. 3M is partnering with companies around the globe, and working in a lab in Maplewood, to develop solutions for hydrogen, seen as a promising though still...
Equipment converts water to hydrogen inside a lab at 3M headquarters in Maplewood. 3M is partnering with companies around the globe, and working in a lab in Maplewood, to develop solutions for hydrogen, seen as a promising though still...

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Seeking efficiency

Andy Steinbach's lab may be the happiest place at 3M thanks to the excess oxygen piped out of the mini electrolyzers lining the lab bench.

One of the devices has been running for 5,000 hours to ensure the key 3M material splitting water molecules performs as long as it should.

"These are long-term durability tests," Steinbach said.

That material, nanostructured-supported iridium catalyst powder, is a classic 3M innovation: It has been around for decades but only recently was enlisted to help with hydrogen production.

A gram of the powder can help produce 1 ton of hydrogen while reducing the amount of rare and expensive iridium needed in electrolysis. More efficiency, lower cost.

"It all comes back to 3M's goal of supporting the hydrogen economy through materials and processes," Yamaya said.

Weber said 3M wants to be a go-to resource for the hydrogen industry, rather than knocking on doors to pitch solutions.

"We want the problems to come to us."

Bill Weber, Director of Business Building at 3M Ventures, shares information at 3M headquarters in Maplewood on May 22.
Bill Weber, Director of Business Building at 3M Ventures, shares information at 3M headquarters in Maplewood on May 22.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune