SoCalGas to partner with SunLine Transit Agency to test technologies that aim to reduce cost of hydrogen production

April 22, 2021
The three-year demonstration research project will integrate technologies to produce hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles at prices competitive with gasoline.

SunLine Transit Agency (SunLine) is working with Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) on H2 SilverSTARS, a research project that aims to produce renewable hydrogen to fuel SunLine’s fleet of 17 hydrogen fuel cell electric buses, as well as support fleet expansion.

The project will showcase a technological combination that will produce hydrogen from renewable natural gas (RNG) at SunLine’s hydrogen fueling station in Thousand Palms, Calif.

The combination of new technologies will make it possible to provide renewable hydrogen at any location near a natural gas pipeline. The goal is to produce emissions-free renewable hydrogen for fuel cell electric cars and other vehicles at a price competitive with gasoline.

SunLine says hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles are expected to play an important role in meeting California Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order requiring all new cars sold in the state be zero-emissions by 2035. As demand for these cars increases, Californians will need thousands more stations where they can fuel up with hydrogen.

The demonstration project will integrate two core technologies. The first, Linde’s HydroPrime HC300 MIN system, will make hydrogen from renewable natural gas the same way large, centralized hydrogen production plants do—but with compact equipment small enough to fit in a tractor trailer container. While Linde’s system is already commercially available and being used abroad, its use at SunLine’s fueling station will be the first time it has been deployed in North America. The SunLine location will be able to produce up to 650 kilograms (about 172 gallons) of hydrogen a day.

The second technology, STARS-165 SMR, built by the start-up STARS Corporation, takes the Linde system a step further. It achieves greater efficiencies in producing hydrogen by using a compact microchannel design and is driven by an electricity-powered induction heating process, meaning there is no combustion, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional hydrogen production. In addition, the system is produced using 3-D printing, making it suited for mass-production. This also makes it less expensive to make and operate compared to alternatives. Two STARS systems, with a combined production capacity of up to 330 kilograms (about 87 gallons) of hydrogen a day, will be installed for this research project.

“These technologies could drastically change the face of hydrogen production in California, creating the opportunity for anyone to fill up their fuel cell electric car, truck or bus with low- or zero-carbon hydrogen anywhere there’s a natural gas pipeline,” said Neil Navin, SoCalGas vice president of clean energy innovations. “For SoCalGas, this is another step toward meeting our pledge to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in our operations and delivery of energy by 2045.”

The 36-month project will initially demonstrate both core technologies individually and collect performance data to assess the STARS system’s potential to improve its efficiency and cost.  The STARS SMR technology will then be integrated with the Linde HydroPrime system with the goal of fast-tracking its commercialization.

“Our agency has been a longtime advocate of advancing clean air and alternative fuel technology. This partnership with SoCalGas allows us to continue converting our fleet to zero-emissions five years ahead of state mandates,” said Lauren Skiver, SunLine Transit Agency CEO/general manager and California Hydrogen Business Council chair. “It also helps us realize our goal of making hydrogen fueling accessible to the public in order to inspire a cleaner tomorrow.”

“The microchannels in this technology make the chemical reactions far faster and vastly more efficient than traditional steam methane reformation, and it’s also far less expensive to produce,” said Robert Wegeng, president of STARS Technology Corporation. “And because this technology uses induction heating—which can be powered by renewable electricity—the entire process can be zero emissions when renewable natural gas is used. We look forward to analyzing the results of this important research alongside SoCalGas and SunLine Transit.”