Celestial co-founder touts powerful new idea

BOULDER – John Hay wants to save the world one hydrogen atom at a time with technology he hopes to commercialize through his company, Boulder-based Celestial Power Co. LLC.

Hay, a pioneer in the organic beverages industry who co-founded Celestial Seasonings Inc. with Mo Siegel, is seeking $500,000 in equity for his startup as part of the company’s first financing round, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He has pending patents on technology to extract hydrogen from a water molecule to generate electricity.

“Hopefully Celestial Power can have as large an influence on the energy arena as Celestial Seasonings did on the natural, organic foods movement,” Hay said. “The goal here is to help make the world a better place for my children and grandchildren.”

The idea comes as major auto manufacturers plan to add hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to their production lines. The downside is the lack of hydrogen fueling stations, the high cost of producing hydrogen, and emissions from producing hydrogen from natural gas.

That’s why Celestial Power is developing a less expensive way to produce hydrogen, while using wind and solar energy to power a hydrogen generator that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Celestial Power would condense water vapor created during the process into liquid, creating water that can be reused to produce more hydrogen.

Celestial Power believes it can also offer hydrogen fuel for a quarter of the cost of a gallon of gasoline without polluting Earth’s atmosphere. The company also contends that the hydrogen fuel can be produced by the consumer so the fuel would not be shipped.

Hay says his company’s new highly efficient method of splitting water molecules will produce five times the amount of hydrogen as conventional methods of electrolysis. It could be used at every level from a hydrogen fuel cell car fueling station to utility-scale power plants, generating two to three times the electrical output of a solar array or wind turbine.

Technology like that developed by Celestial Power indeed could someday play a role in the utility sector, experts say.

One commercial hydrogen production method involves using an electrical current to split water molecules, said Kevin Harrison, senior engineer for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. Fuel cells store hydrogen to generate power. Another way comes from stripping natural gas of its hydrogen, although that causes pollution.

Harrison researches hydrogen production at NREL. Multiple companies also test hydrogen-production technology at the lab, including Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Teledyne Technologies Inc., Newton, Mass.-based Giner Inc., and Wallingford, Conn.-based Proton Onsite.

The first wave of large-scale hydrogen power generation will come from automobiles, in which fuel cells have greater efficiency than gasoline engines, Harrison said. Later, utility-scale power plants could produce hydrogen with excess electricity generated by solar and wind farms.

If the wind blows overnight when electricity isn’t needed, the electricity could be used to make hydrogen for power the next day. Renewable hydrogen production also consumes less water than conventional forms of energy, such as coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

“You can use that excess electricity to make hydrogen, store it and then put it back on the grid in a utility-scale type application,” he said. “If the hydrogen is made renewably and sustainably with wind and solar, it can have virtually a zero-carbon footprint.”
Despite its advantages, hydrogen production is fraught with economic challenges, said Chet Geschickter, research director for Gartner Inc.’s Energy and Utilities Service Sector in Boston. One of the issues is the reliability of fuel cell membranes.

Still, a number of companies make hydrogen fuel cells, notably Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Bloom Energy, which makes fuel cells for data centers.

The $500,000 in investment sought by Celestial Power will give the company a start in its equipment purchases and initial experiments, but costs to produce hydrogen will require additional investment, Geschickter said.

The multi-trillion-dollar energy market is massive, but it also has well-established infrastructure, lower costs and furious competition thanks to fossil fuels, he said. Additionally, natural gas-to-hydrogen conversion dominates the fuel cell market.

“Could hydrogen power become really important down the road? It could, but a lot of this comes down to cost,” he said. “It’s a major conversion to go over to hydrogen as a fuel at just about every level.”

Hay aims to build some prototypes and finish the company’s patents, which are pending. Once that occurs, the company will raise additional capital, build strategic partnerships and alliances, and hire more employees.

“This is a very large and long-term project that will take time to move into the mainstream,” Hay said.

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