Asemblon, Hydrogen Fuel Startup, Finds Ally in Schwarzenegger’s Favorite Big Rig Maker

Hydrogen-powered cars and trucks are supposed to be cheaper and greener to run than anything today. It’s one of those big cleantech ideas that always seems to be five years away from the market. Yet Asemblon, a little Redmond, WA-based company on a quest to make this dream practical, took a small step forward recently when it struck a deal with one of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favorite startup trucking companies.

Asemblon’s new partnership is with Los Angeles-based Vision Industries. Terms of the deal aren’t disclosed, but Asemblon is providing Vision with an exclusive license to sell its “Hydrnol” fuel to power heavy-duty commercial trucks. Vision Industries needs the access to hydrogen fuel for its Tyrano truck, a big rig designed to run on a zero-emissions hybrid electric/hydrogen motor.

Asemblon, advised by University of Washington bioengineering professor Buddy Ratner, is commercializing a family of organic carrier molecules that can release hydrogen on demand. This is supposed to make hydrogen practical as a liquid fuel by enabling it to be stored at room temperature, and without high pressure, so people could carry it around in containers or ship it on pipelines or trucks like gasoline. In theory, this should solve some of the major barriers to the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel, by eliminating huge infrastructure investments needed for high-pressure tanks, expensive new hydrogen filling stations, and costly transportation in a cold, liquid form. The Asemblon technique is supposed to yield hydrogen fuel at one-tenth the cost of the usual pressurized form.

While Vision Industries is still in the “vision” stage, it’s an idea that California’s self-proclaimed green governor likes a lot. The Tyrano truck is designed to run on a 535 horsepower engine, travel a local range of 200 miles, and cost 30 to 40 percent less to operate per mile than a conventional diesel-powered big rig.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger

“This is exactly where the future is,” Schwarzenegger said in an October press conference, which you can view on Vision Industries’ website.

Vision is betting that by using Asemblon’s Hydrnol hydrogen fuel, it can set up the first coast-to-coast network of fuel stations, which is essential if the trucking industry were to ever adopt this technology. One of the key advantages is Hydrnol’s ability to be stored and transported without extra pressure. That matters because hydrogen-powered trucks today can only carry about 40 kilograms of compressed hydrogen, which limits them to a range of 200 to 400 miles. Asemblon’s method enables a truck to carry 110 kilograms of unpressurized hydrogen fuel, extending the range to 650 to 1,100 miles, depending on speed and load burden.

The trucking industry is also a logical place for Asemblon to start marketing its hydrogen fuel. Highway trucks consume about 13 percent of all the transportation fuel in the U.S., and the industry doesn’t require a vast network of corner fuelling stations like passenger vehicles do. For commercial trucking, the logistics of installing hydrogen fueling capability look a lot less expensive and daunting. Vision Industries estimates that a 300-station national network of truckstops with Hydrnol capability can be built for less than $100 million.

Partnerships like this are what Asemblon has had in mind for a long time, but hadn’t delivered on until recently. The company has gone through some pretty big changes since the last time I wrote about it in April 2009. Former CEO Pat Quarles is out, and has been replaced by Michael Ramage, the company’s former vice president of strategy. In the earlier story, Quarles said the company had raised $11 million since its founding in 2005, and expected to raise another $3 million or so to pursue construction of a pilot fuel production facility in North Dakota to make 10,000 gallons a day of Hydrnol.

Today, Asemblon still says it has raised $11 million since inception, so that last increment of financing doesn’t appear to have arrived. It pulled the plug on the North Dakota plan. And the staff has been downsized from about 30 to 15 employees.

If anything, those steps make commercial reality sound further away, not closer. But Asemblon today has gained a “tighter commercial focus,” Ramage says.

That renewed focus, partially through the partnership, has pumped new life into the company, Ramage says. Asemblon is back on the fundraising trail, “pretty confident” that it will raise more money in the next two or three months, Ramage says.

Ratner, the entrepreneurial UW professor who serves as a scientific advisor to the company, says he hopes the partnership with Vision Industries is the start of something bigger for Asemblon.

“The Asemblon strategy has always been to partner with major players in the transportation and energy field. Transforming energy for this whole planet is a big bite to chew and swallow, but working with large players in trucking, automotive, aviation and energy greatly leverages what we can do. Vision is one of those partners.”

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