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Eighteen of the 19 warmest years on record globally have occurred since 2001, an ominous statistic highlighting the importance in transportation circles for finding ways to cut carbon emissions while sustaining an effective energy plan.

A Lincoln company is playing a leading role in providing a solution.

Hexagon Composites, the Norwegian owner of Hexagon Lincoln, a facility that manufactures storage tanks and distribution systems for natural gas and other alternative fuels, is moving into hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Lynn Lyon, vice president of strategic marketing at Hexagon Composites, said the company began exploring hydrogen two years ago as a possible energy solution, and it has looked to its Lincoln operation as its premier composite tanks manufacturer to lead the charge. 

"It was a natural transition for us to expand the product line to address the needs of hydrogen fueling, as well as natural gas," Lyon said. 

She said Hexagon sees the Lincoln group as a reliable and trustworthy partner filled with exceptional leaders and a long track record of success going as far back as the early days of the space program. The partnership between NASA and the Lincoln company's previous owners demonstrated a certain level of capability and expertise needed for Hexagon to dive into energy solutions involving hydrogen.

"It's that partner-trust status that's so important. They were trusted to make tanks for the space shuttle and they continue to have customers in the spaceship industry right now," Lyon said. "In natural gas, you don't get a second chance. Safety is paramount to everything we do."

As Hexagon Composites expands its hydrogen business unit, other companies, including the Nebraska Public Power District, are looking into hydrogen as an effective energy solution. Alan Dostal, NPPD's director of research, said hydrogen fuel cell technology is becoming a more viable energy source as the technology costs have come down and reliability has improved. 

He said the transportation and automotive industry are areas where everyday consumers will see the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology. It's similar to the inner workings of an electric car, but the main differences lie in how the vehicle's battery is powered. A series of hydrogen-filled tanks power a stack of hundreds of fuel cells, each producing a volt of electricity that then powers the motor. A battery attached to the hydrogen tanks stores any leftover energy recovered as the car decelerates.

"They're amazing," Dostal said. "They're quiet, they start up quickly and they have a range of about 400 miles."

However, Dostal said the technology will likely first benefit heavy-duty trucks, tractors and other commercial vehicles, which currently account for half of all carbon emissions tied to transportation. Nebraska car shoppers shouldn't dig too deep into buying a hydrogen vehicle just yet, since equipping a private refueling station in your home will cost well over $1 million. Fewer than 60 public hydrogen fueling stations exist in the United States, 39 of them located in California.

But as the technology improves, Lyon said the reliability of hydrogen energy will give it an advantage over the oil industry in those industrial transportation applications.

"Imagine a company has a fleet of trucks that ship products around the country, and every year you have to guess what your budget is going to be for diesel," she said. "Imagine if you knew that it was going to pretty much always stay at $2 a gallon. That's the kind of reliability that hydrogen provides."

Earlier this year Hexagon said growth in orders for its mobile pipeline products, which are compressed natural gas composite tanks mounted in semitrailers, led to an increase in employment at Hexagon Lincoln.

That has led to more people working at its manufacturing plant in the LNK Enterprise Park near the Lincoln Airport.

Hexagon Lincoln is led by president Jack Schimenti, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has worked for Hexagon Composites since 2005.

"The leadership that is based right there in Lincoln is the top expertise in the world, in my opinion," Lyon said.

Lyon said Hexagon Lincoln will work to assist the needs of all major players in the hydrogen energy industry, including members of the Hydrogen Council, which is made up of 39 companies seeking to promote hydrogen technology as a viable energy solution to reduce emissions and slow the acceleration of climate change.

Hexagon had said in November that it planned to add 20 to 30 additional employees for the hydrogen segment in Lincoln.

The fuel tanks to hold the hydrogen will be made at Hexagon Lincoln. It already has the contract to provide fuel tanks for the first hydrogen-powered boat in the U.S., as well as contracts to provide hydrogen tanks for fuel cell electric vehicles for major automotive makers.

"Our goal is to reduce carbon emissions to zero," Lyon said. "And Hexagon feels that this is the best solution to reach that goal."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.

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