Georgian brings dream of cheap hydrogen closer

Robert Dopp today announced a breakthrough electrolyzer that can produce hydrogen at less than the current cost of gasoline.

Robert Dopp (right), a Marietta, Georgia researcher profiled here at SmartPlanet last fall , today announced a breakthrough electrolyzer that can produce hydrogen at less than the current cost of gasoline.

Dopp's GridShift Inc is now backed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla's  Khosla Ventures, He told SmartPlanet his unit can produce hydrogen for $2.51 per kilogram, using catalysts that cost just $58 per ounce. Most current units use platinum ,which costs $1,700 per ounce.

Dopp told SmartPlanet he was contacted by Khosla, who saw a white paper we linked to in our story, about a year before that article appeared in November. I was unable to interview Dopp at that time because he was in stealth mode, and instead linked to publicly-available information, including his Web site.

Unlike General Electric, which won a Popular Mechanics award for its 2006 electrolyzer design based on a technique called "sputtering," Dopp says he has patented an electrochemical process to completely coat his highly porous electrodes with catalyst on all internal surfaces.

This allows hydrogen to be produced throughout the depth of the electrode, increasing efficiency and dropping production costs dramatically. For technical details, a whitepaper has been published at the Grid Shift Web site.

"That was the first step in getting the efficiency," he told me. He's now working on an alkaline fuel cell using the new electrodes, which will be followed by a complete hydrogen flow cell.

"The hardest part was the electrolyzer because it included the electrode coating process that will be used for the other segments of the project."

Dopp has been working in this area all his life, having helped develop the zinc-air hearing aid battery during an 18 year career at Rayovac and acting as director of research for Electric Fuel Corp. before opening his own small lab in 2002. He has 37 issued patents and 18 more filed.

Khosla is a computer industry legend. He ran Sun until becoming a venture capitalist in 1983, and left Kleiner Perkins to open his own shop in 2006.

The implications of the work are enormous. Right now hydrogen is mainly produced with natural gas, meaning "green" fuel isn't very green at all. India must also import petroleum to make ammonia for fertilizer.

Dopp hopes that, with a strategic partner’s help, which they are now seeking, GridShift can build units that could produce the raw material for ammonia, in India, using wind power and water.

He also foresees American consumers owning their own hydrogen generators the size of an office refrigerator. "Hydrogen is difficult to pipe or truck. The practical solution is to produce it at home."

Dopp will discuss his patented technology with executives from other Khosla Ventures portfolio companies later this year at an annual conference the venture capitalist sponsors.

"Mr. Khosla has given us some guidance on the science, but mostly he has let us run with the ball," Dopp concluded. "He's an amazingly positive fellow."

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