A steel plant in Duisburg, Germany
The dream of a global hydrogen economy has tantalized policymakers ever since the 1970s when researchers began to discuss how the ubiquitous, clean-burning fuel could replace coal, oil and natural gas. Skeptics have had 50 years to scoff at the notion, but it looks like hydrogen fans are getting the last laugh — and that could open up new pathways for scaling up green hydrogen and, in the bigger picture, decarbonization across multiple commercial sectors.
Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but it does not exist independently. It must be extracted from something. The primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, along with coal to a lesser extent.
Hydrogen is also abundant in renewable resources, including water as well as biogas and biomass. The problem is how to extract hydrogen from renewable hosts without adding excessive costs and greenhouse gas emissions to the global economy.
Both of those problems appeared insurmountable until recent years, when the cost of wind and solar energy began dropping. That sea change in the global energy profile has provided low cost, zero emission electricity to power electrolyzer systems, which deploy an electrical current to push so-named green hydrogen gas out of water.
Though much of the media attention has focused on the use of hydrogen in fuel cell electric cars, recent developments indicate that green hydrogen is only beginning to flex its muscles on the global scene.
Here are five key developments that have been sailing under the media radar.
Fuel cell and battery-powered electric vehicles will eventually dominate the passenger car market, but that will take many years. In the meantime, biofuels can help neutralize greenhouse gas emissions to some extent.
However, the biofuel supply chain cannot scale up indefinitely. It is already running into food supply and and habitat conservation issues. An alternative pathway is needed, and that’s where electrofuels come in.
During the Obama administration, researchers began to focus on electrofuels as drop-in replacements for both conventional biofuels and fossil fuels. The initial concept was to produce fuel from solar energy and bacteria in a process that mimics photosynthesis.
More recently, researchers have begun deploying low-cost renewable energy and green hydrogen to skip the bacteria and go straight to a synthetic process that deploys captured carbon dioxide, yielding a drop-in replacement for conventional fuel.
Porsche appears to be the first automaker to invest in the new electrofuels. The automaker has been investing in electric vehicles, but apparently the company also plans to lean on electrofuels to neutralize emissions from its profitable 911 line of sports cars.
Another leading firm to enter the field is Maersk. Last year Maersk invested in the Silicon Valley electrofuel startup Prometheus Fuels, which is developing a process that deploys direct-air carbon capture. BMW also has an interest in the project, along with American Airlines and other stakeholders.
Heavy industry is one area that has resisted decarbonization, but that is beginning to change. In Europe, the steel industry is depending on the new HYBRIT project to demonstrate the use of green hydrogen to replace fossil energy in iron and steelmaking.
Closer to home, the global steel maker ArcelorMittal recently announced a successful test of green hydrogen in the direct reduced iron process at its steelmaking facility Canada. The process normally deploys natural gas to extract oxygen from iron oxide pellets, yielding metallic iron for steel production.
The somewhat modest test involved replacing only 6.8 percent of natural gas at the Canadian plant with green hydrogen, but apparently that was good enough to convince ArcelorMittal to continue pursuing that pathway.
“This test is an important milestone in the Company's journey to produce zero carbon emissions steel via the DRI-based steelmaking route using green hydrogen as an input,” ArcelorMittal stated.
The company is also working on a hydrogen demonstration project at its plant in Hamburg, Germany. The plans involve sourcing the hydrogen from waste gas at the facility at the beginning, then transitioning to green hydrogen as supplies become available.
The design of systems that can transition from gas to green hydrogen is also taking hold in the power generation industry, where existing gas storage facilities, pipelines and other infrastructure can also be called into play.
The field has attracted the interest of leading global engineering firms, including Mitsubishi. The company is a stakeholder in the multi-level Advanced Clean Energy Storage project in Utah. The project includes converting an 840-megawatt coal power plant to a mix of green hydrogen and natural gas initially, with a goal of 100 percent green hydrogen in later years.
ACES is said to be the largest project of its kind, and it is not the only one. The idea of a “green hydrogen hub” that combines production, storage and deployment is already catching on among other U.S. states, including a newly announced, massive tri-state project that partners New York with neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey.
Aside from its use as a fuel, hydrogen is also entangled in other key global industries including agriculture and food processing as well as toiletries and medicines.
In particular, green hydrogen provides a pathway for decarbonizing the ammonia industry. As indicated by the chemical formula NH3, the industry currently relies heavily on fossil inputs to obtain hydrogen for ammonia production (the “N” is nitrogen, which can be drawn from the air).
Aside from its direct use in agriculture and other fields, ammonia can also serve as a low-cost, easily transportable carrier for hydrogen. Once the ammonia arrives at its destination, the hydrogen can be extracted for other uses.
The cost of extracting hydrogen from ammonia has been an obstacle, but the firm Hydrofuel Canada is among those working on solutions.
Last month, Hydrofuel licensed the patent-pending, low cost “MAPS” green ammonia system from Georgia Tech, which involves generating ammonia directly from electrolyzed water and airborne nitrogen. Hydrofuel plans to leverage the ammonia has a hydrogen carrier.
“Green Hydrogen can be separated out from this ammonia to sell at about $1.50 a kg, compared to traditional green H2 which sells for up to $15 a kg. Even at $.08/kWh the production of green Ammonia and releasing Hydrogen from it will be lower cost than any hydrocarbon fuel,” Hydrofuel claims.
Green hydrogen can be extracted from various forms of biomass, but so far most investor dollars have gone to water electrolysis. That puts the focus on lowering the cost of electrolysis systems, and activity in that area is beginning to pick up steam.
Last month, Bosch joined a growing roster of legacy firms that have committed to improving electrolyzer systems, lowering costs, and ramping up production. The company aims to market and produce “smart” electrolyzer systems in high volume.
Lowering the cost of the membranes and catalysts used in electrolyzer systems is a particular area of focus for startups and legacy firms alike. For example, the startup H2U Technologies is developing a new catalyst-coated membrane that eliminates the use of platinum and other expensive metals in electrolyzer systems. Honeywell is also working along the same lines. Earlier this year, the company announced that it is anticipating a 25 percent drop in the cost of an electrolyzer stack once it commercializes its new catalyst-coated membrane.
Another cost-cutting approach is illustrated by the U.S. firm Advanced Ionics, which is marketing a steam-driven, energy-efficient electrolyzer system for use at industrial sites.
This is just a small sample of the activity under way. Energy stakeholders are also beginning to explore green hydrogen production as a valuable add-on for offshore wind farms, and the field of concentrating solar power could also help increase the supply and lower the cost of green hydrogen.
The window of opportunity to scoff at the global hydrogen economy of the future is beginning to close.
Image credit: Herbert Aust via Pixabay
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.