The decision by the Biden administration to rejoin the Paris agreement will likely provide a boost to the creation of a robust hydrogen fuel industry in the U.S., with the potential of providing an abundant supply of carbon-free fuel for diverse application including power generation, vehicle transportation and manufacturing, as well as a reliable source of energy storage.
Although hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, and its potential as a fuel source has been well understood for decades, substantial challenges have long stood in the way of the development of a thriving hydrogen fuel industry. However, as the world’s governments seek ways to decarbonize their economies and investors turn away from traditional fossil fuel companies, energy experts are looking to hydrogen as a significant part of America’s low-carbon future.
“One of the advantages of hydrogen is its ability to provide benefits across applications and across sectors,” Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, said in an interview.
“There’s the real opportunity in clean energy — enabling transportation with zero emissions and a clean grid — and energy storage and industrial applications.” She said while hydrogen offers a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. to meet its climate change goals, “We need to focus on reducing the cost.”
The Paris climate agreement, which President Biden officially rejoined on Friday, sets a goal of limiting global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. By recommitting to the deal, which former President Trump had rejected, the U.S., along with the almost 200 other participating nations, has agreed to restructure its economy to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
According to a report in the journal Nature last August, Europe is already much further along in its drive to establish a thriving hydrogen fuel industry than is the United States.
In his campaign’s energy plan then-candidate Biden had promised to promote the production of “renewable hydrogen,” along with other clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative-emissions technologies, and advanced nuclear power.
He also promised to “ensure that the market can access green hydrogen at the same cost as conventional hydrogen within a decade – providing a new, clean fuel source for some existing power plants.”
Different colors of hydrogen
The last statement is significant, in that it distinguishes “green” from “conventional” hydrogen. Hydrogen is typically characterized by colors, depending on the way in which it’s produced. The U.S. already has a substantial annual hydrogen production capacity, about 10 million metric tons, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, most of which is used in refineries and in other industrial processes.
About 95% of the hydrogen currently produced in the U.S. is “gray” hydrogen, so called because it’s produced from natural gas, in a process that yields about nine parts CO₂ for every one part of hydrogen. In order to create a lower-carbon fuel, “blue hydrogen,” producers of the gas must deal with the undesired volumes of CO₂ through carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
“Green hydrogen,” results when renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity, which is then used to separate water, H₂O, through electrolysis into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen. Because of the extra expense of disposing of the unwanted carbon through CCUS, it’s more expensive to produce blue hydrogen than it is gray, while green hydrogen involves the most expensive process of all.
DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office is working with industry and academia to develop new commercial-scale technologies to make the production of zero-carbon hydrogen more economical, Satyapal said. Its H2@Scale program “explores the potential for wide-scale hydrogen production and utilization in the United States to enable resiliency of the power generation and transmission sectors.”
For example, last October, as part of the H2@Scale program, the office launched two consortia, the Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck (M2FCT) and the H2NEW, to advance research into fuel-cell truck technology and hydrogen production methods respectively.
“With our funding we helped to enable 1,100 U.S. patents,” which have resulted in the development of about 30 commercial hydrogen-production and fuel-cell technologies, Satyapal said. Another 60 or more DOE-funded projects could reach commercial development in the next few years, she said.
Hydrogen industry will involve diverse group of players
The emerging hydrogen fuel industry is likely to include many players, from established oil and gas giants, such as Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, to industrial gas firms, like Air Liquide and Linde, to industrial manufacturing and technology players, such as GE and Siemens.
“There are several small, emerging technology companies, but the companies that are going to drive this industry will be the established energy infrastructure companies,” Brian Weeks, senior director of business development at the Gas Technology Institute, said in an interview.
Because hydrogen can be produced and transported using the existing energy infrastructure already on and under the ground, “We can repurpose, expand and modify the existing infrastructure to create a more integrated energy system. But that’s going to require vast resources, and not just physical resources, but people as well,” Weeks said.
This article is reproduced at www.forbes.com