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The Hydrogen Economy Redux - Pathway to Real Green Hydrogen

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Alan Rozich's picture
Chief Science Officer Borun

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

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  • Jun 15, 2021 7:15 pm GMT
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Winston Churchill once famously described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". These words from the iconic world leader arguably ring true for that conceptually puzzling initiative popularly known as the Hydrogen Economy. Just what is the "Hydrogen Economy"? Currently, there are different flavors of hydrogen which add to the confusion and each flavor has a different "level" of green, or sustainability, attribution. These broad categories are:

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  1. Fossil fuel hydrogen;
  2. Hydrogen produced with electrolysis using renewable or other energy; and
  3. Green hydrogen made with existing microbial processes.

 

The current status of hydrogen production (using fossil fuels) is that it is a major contributor to global anthropogenic CO2 emissions accounting for almost a hefty 1%.

IEA (International Energy Agency) notes that the hydrogen industry is currently responsible for "830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined" while global CO2 emissions in 2020 were 30.6 gigatons. Consequently, simply using renewable energy to power existing hydrogen production systems readily ameliorates a significant level of GHG emissions.

A chorus of naysayers out there and undoubtedly many others are suffering from "Hydrogen Economy fatigue." These sustainability stakeholders underscore that there is a long history of promises and unfilled expectations. Others grasp the potential for a hydrogen economy but the reality is that since the 1970s, we have been talking about "potential" without tangible benefit while spending billions on hydrogen subsidies.

Nevertheless, hydrogen's transformative utility is palpable and we need to harness this gestating sustainability unicorn.

Toward a Greener Hydrogen

One company is emulating the suggestion above uses renewables to power electrolysis as suggested by US Department of Energy. This flavor of hydrogen is called "Green" Hydrogen with quotes on green. It is noted that, "We generate “green” hydrogen from renewable energy using PEM electrolysis, and in doing so make an important contribution to the global energy transition." This strategy, however, warrants closer inspection regarding aggregate sustainability characteristics.

Consider the fact that solar and wind both have sustainability baggage that can compromise the overall sustainability calculus of the electrolysis value proposition. These technologies are egregiously inefficient when it comes to sustainable land utilization. This is because both solar and wind have low power production per area and rank near the bottom in sustainable land use for ALL (including fossil fuel) energy sources. It is thus conceivable that there will be circumstances where fossil fuel sources may be more sustainable than solar or wind for electrolysis applications because of superior sustainable land use considerations.

A Pathway to Real Green Hydrogen

Real green hydrogen is made biologically using existing infrastructure assets and is extremely net-energy positive while also producing numerous other commercially significant products. For green hydrogen production, the approach is to utilize an existing bioconversion technology architecture that can achieve conversion rates of 90% of more on biomass feedstocks and that can selectively optimize feedstock processing to maximize green hydrogen production. The technology strategy entails the operation of a two stage anaerobic digestion process which can be implemented with a "plug 'n' play" approach that leverages existing infrastructure assets. The first stage will be biokinetically optimized to maximize hydrogen production while minimizing the conversion of hydrogen to methane. Hydrogen is generated in the first stage and harvested while methane is produced in the second stage. Also in the second stage, the process will make RNG and green ammonia along with prodigious quantities of renewable water which are all harvested which facilitates aggregate manufacturing costs for all products.

The technology architecture makes at least 5 renewable product cash streams enabling hydrogen costs to be under $1/kg almost 30 years sooner than predicted by Bloomberg and priced appropriately subject to prevailing market demands and situational opportunities.

The combination of proven technology architecture along with demand for renewable products puts the reality of a starting an authentic green hydrogen economy within our grasp. The use of an established technology platform that creates multiple high-valued renewable products allows one to commence green hydrogen production vigorously initiated by producing it in concert with other established renewable products as a risk-mitigation measure. This go-to-market strategy proactively addresses a plethora of risks including technical, financial, and commercial.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 15, 2021

Real green hydrogen is made biologically using existing infrastructure assets and is extremely net-energy positive while also producing numerous other commercially significant products

Leveraging existing assets and not having to start from scratch is a huge boon-- there are lots of debates that rightfully discuss LCOE and the like, but we also need to factor in reality and what that will look like in implementation. Thanks for sharing, Alan. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 16, 2021

A very good update on the 3 types of H2 production. Thanks Alan.

  The ammonia piece is what has become the new process that can make it work. I never heard it used in the oast but it is gaining fast this past year.  Do you know if that changes the need for an expensive PEM? 

 

Alan Rozich's picture
Alan Rozich on Jun 16, 2021

Thanks for the comments, Jim. On the ammonia, my involvement was looking into how to eliminate the Haber Process for producing ammonia. Here is an article that discusses a path for making green ammonia biologically. I do not think it is feasible to make enough of it for energy production, but it is very doable to use biological processes to make green ammonia which is in high demand by organic food growers who require green fertilizers that are high quality. Also, it is not a stretch to be able to shut down the Haber Process which is a major contributor to GHGs.

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