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The Versatility of Hydrogen

Paul Meier's picture
Consultant Clean Energy Consultant

I work as an independent consultant, having retired from ConocoPhillips in 2008 after 30 years of service. From 2008-2014, I was a clean fuels consultant for Sinopec, the China Petroleum and...

  • Member since 2022
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  • Jun 21, 2022
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Hydrogen has long been a mainstay in industry and is an important component in refining, ammonia production, and methanol production. Of the 10 million metric tonnes (MMT) produced in the US in 2020, about 70% was used by refineries and 22% for ammonia production. For the same year, the world produced 90 MMT, with 44% going to refineries and 38% for ammonia production. The remaining amounts were used in methanol production, steel production, feed processing, and treating metals.

Hydrogen is becoming a more versatile fuel, however, and is receiving interest in energy storage, as a transportation fuel, as a fuel for electricity generation, and as a fuel for heating. Renewables such as solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind have variable output, so hydrogen is one option for storing electrical energy from renewables to better match production and demand. In addition, the hydrogen made from renewables could be transported from regions with abundant solar PV and wind to large cities for subsequent use. Such means of transportation include sending it as a gas via pipeline or converting it to liquid form and transporting by truck or ship.

The transportation market

The US government started the Freedom Car Fuel Partnership in 2006 to study the use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel. The goal was to transform the transportation market to one using hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). If the hydrogen is produced from renewable energy, the overall CO2 emissions will be quite small. An FCV is as much as three times more efficient than a gasoline vehicle, so a higher percentage of the energy in hydrogen is used relative to gasoline. Compared to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen FCVs allow a refueling time similar to gasoline, thus avoiding the long charging times common with BEVs.

The US program has not rapidly advanced, however, as there are less than 50 hydrogen fueling stations in the US (mostly in California) which, along vehicle costs, have limited the transition to a hydrogen transportation economy. At the end of 2021, the US had less than 13,000 hydrogen FCVs in service. In spite of the slow development in the US, Denmark has an energy plan to establish a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure with a goal of being independent of fossil fuels by 2050. The plan is to produce hydrogen using wind energy, both onshore and offshore, and solar PV. Time will tell whether Europe is more committed to hydrogen FCVs than the US, and how BEVs and FCVs will compete in a transition from fossil fuels.

Electricity and heating

As a fuel for electricity generation, hydrogen can be used with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electricity and water. Hydrogen can also be blended with natural gas, thereby using a blended fuel mixture in a natural gas turbine, with an overall a reduction of CO2 emissions. Hydrogen can also be used for heating. While the use of pure hydrogen would require considerable alteration or replacement of existing home and industrial heating infrastructure that uses natural gas, hydrogen can be blended with natural gas up to concentrations around 20% without changes to the infrastructure.

Producing hydrogen

Demand for hydrogen, which has grown more than threefold since 1975, is still mostly produced from fossil fuels. Of the 10 MMT produced in the US, 95% is from natural gas (methane), 4% from coal gasification, and 1% from electrolysis. For worldwide production of hydrogen, 76% is from natural gas, 22% from coal gasification, and 2% from electrolysis.

Significant amounts of hydrogen do not exist in pure form but there are great quantities available in different chemical compounds, especially natural gas, coal, biomass, and water. Therefore, hydrogen, unlike fossil fuels, is not an energy source but rather an energy carrier. It can be produced in a variety of ways and it is now common to assign a color code based on the source of the hydrogen and the relative amount of CO2 made during production. For example, the majority of hydrogen in the US is produced via natural gas reforming, a reaction of natural gas and steam to make synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide (CO), and CO2. In this case the hydrogen is referred to as “grey” hydrogen. If the hydrogen is produced from coal or biomass via gasification, such that oxygen is used to convert the fossil fuel into CO, hydrogen, and CO2, it is referred to as “black” hydrogen. Reforming and gasification produce large amounts of CO2 and if these processes are coupled with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), such that the CO2 is captured and transported to a geological formation for permanent storage, it is referred to as “blue” hydrogen. “Green” hydrogen is produced from electrolysis of water using electricity from only renewable energy types, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. If, instead, nuclear energy is used to provide energy for the electrolysis it is referred to as “pink” hydrogen.

In conclusion, the use of hydrogen for storing energy, as a transportation fuel, to generate electricity, and for heating could greatly expand hydrogen demand, adding to the existing industrial uses in refining and ammonia production, as well as a variety of other applications.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 21, 2022

Hydrogen can also be blended with natural gas, thereby using a blended fuel mixture in a natural gas turbine, with an overall a reduction of CO2 emissions.

I've seen differing of opinions on this-- do you think this hydrogen blending does more to keep the natural gas supplies viable and in the energy systems (thus delaying decarbonization), or should we just focus on the direct emission reductions of the gas that's being replaced by hydrogen? 

Paul Meier's picture
Paul Meier on Jun 22, 2022

If I understand the question correctly, I think blending hydrogen with natural gas is more about reducing greenhouse gas emissions than keeping natural gas supplies viable. Clearly, using hydrogen to replace natural gas in electricity production, if made via electrolysis using renewable energy like wind and solar PV, eliminates greenhouse gas emissions that would have been made from natural gas. In addition, if the renewable energy is stranded due to lack of electric grid infrastructure, using an existing pipeline removes this constraint. Another possible benefit of blending is that the hydrogen and natural gas could be separated at the destination, thereby having the hydrogen available for other end uses than electricity generation, such as refining, ammonia production, and FCVs. Using hydrogen-natural gas blends in an existing natural gas pipeline at safe concentrations (typically less than 20%) eliminates the need to build a pipeline dedicated for hydrogen use only.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 22, 2022

Great, thanks for the follow up on this, Paul!

JESSE NYOKABI's picture
JESSE NYOKABI on Jun 24, 2022

Blending hydrogen with natural gas is more about reducing greenhouse gas emissions than keeping natural gas supplies viable. The biggest issue has been greenwashing. Blending hydrogen with natural gas has some technical issues that have been used as avenues for GREENWASHING. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jun 23, 2022

Please add consideration of a different production process relevant to your topic. The web site "www.solarpaces.org" (Solar Power & Chemical Energy Systems) has a lot of Concentrated Solar driven chemistry as you describe.

Paul Meier's picture
Paul Meier on Jun 24, 2022

Concentrated solar power (CSP), also called solar thermal, had rapid development in 2014 and 2015, with the US and Spain leading the world. Parabolic troughs and the power tower are, by far, the most prevalent. However, production peaked around 2015 at a level of around 3,300 MWh per year and has not grown since then; the production in Spain also leveled out. Meanwhile, solar PV was around 35,800 MWh in 2015 and has since grown to 160,800 MWh in 2021. The main issue is capital cost. Solar PV costs have come down from around $3,000/kW in 2015 to around $1,300/kW in 2021. CSP is on the order of $6,000/kW. Because of this, I would be surprised if more CSP plants are built in the US unless a breakthrough is made in the capital cost of construction.


 

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