The verdict is in, and it looks like fuel cells and batteries will both play a role in the sparkling green transportation sector of the future in Germany. The latest development on that score comes from the global gas giant Linde Group. The company is building a new water-to-hydrogen plant in Germany, and this is no demo project. The aim is to churn out enough renewable H2 to drive a fleet of 600 fuel cell buses a total of almost 250 million miles yearly.
Green Hydrogen vs. “Blue” Hydrogen
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is a ubiquitous industrial gas as well as a fuel that can be combusted or used in a fuel cell to generate electricity for electric vehicles. Among other uses, the global economy leans heavily on hydrogen for agriculture (think fertilizer), food processing (hydrogenation is one example), and a growing torrent of toiletries and medicinal products (hydrogen peroxide is just the tip of the iceberg).
So, where is all this hydrogen coming from? Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, but here on Earth it has no existence of its own. It has to be extracted from something, and right now that something is mainly fossil natural gas.
Kicking natural gas out of the hydrogen supply chain would make a big difference in terms of decarbonizing across many parts of the global economy, over and above whatever happens in the transportation sector between batteries and fuel cells (more on that in a second).
Natural gas stakeholders are getting squeezed out of the power generation sector by wind and solar energy, and they are eagerly eyeballing growth in the global hydrogen economy as their last best hope.
To make its case for survival, the natural gas industry has created a public relations campaign around the idea of “blue” hydrogen, which involves fossil gas with carbon capture. That’s not really fooling anybody, is it?
At the present time, fossil gas with carbon capture could beat green hydrogen on cost, as some analyses have shown. However, that window is shrinking on the double-quick. The cost of producing green hydrogen is falling, mainly due to improvements in electrolyzer systems that “split” hydrogen from water with an electrical current.
Here in the US, the Energy Department is plowing money into new hydrogen R&D projects and forming multinational and public-private renewable H2 alliances aimed at driving down the cost of green hydrogen.
Linde Group Goes Big On Green Hydrogen
As if to drive another nail in the natural gas coffin, last week the Linde Group announced that it will build, own, and operate the “world’s largest” electrolyzer for renewable hydrogen, at the Leuna Chemical Complex in Germany.
At 24 megawatts, the new facility is a massive one, capable of fueling 600 fuel cell electric buses for a year as Linde estimates. On a per-bus basis, they hit pretty close to the average annual mileage for a transit bus in the US.
That brings up the question of how Linde is able to make the leap into commercial-level production when much of the global green hydrogen activity is still in the study, demo, and pilot phases.
Good question. Part of the answer is Linde’s experience. The company already has a stable of 80 electrolyzer projects under its belt. The real key, though, is Linde’s existing gas infrastructure.
“The new 24-megawatt electrolyzer will produce green hydrogen to supply Linde’s industrial customers through the company’s existing pipeline network. In addition, Linde will distribute liquefied green hydrogen to refueling stations and other industrial customers in the region,” explains the company.
That should send natural gas stakeholders running for the Alka-Seltzer. If a leading global industrial gas supplier like Linde can transition its existing infrastructure — and its sprawling network of customers — to green hydrogen, then others are all but certain to follow.
Also, the 24-megawatt project could lead to bigger and better things. Linde has partnered with the firm ITM Power to build the electrolyzer. ITM’s early hydrogen work popped up on the CleanTechnica radar 5 years ago and it has been rather busy ever since. Among its latest projects is something called Gigastack, which started with a 5-gigawatt electrolyzer supported by wind power. The next step is to study the feasibility of a 100-megawatt version.
Steel Industry Not Helping The “Blue” Hydrogen Case
One key factor in the rise of green hydrogen is the public demand for greener products, which is motivating leading global manufacturers to decarboniize their supply chains. Gas products like Linde’s are just one example. Another big sector ripe for decarbonization is steelmaking, and it looks like activity in that field is scaling up, too.
In the latest news on that score, last week the firms Tenaris, Edison, and Snam announced a new green hydrogen project as part of the “Dalmine Zero Emissions” plan for decarbonizing the Dalmine steel mill in Milan, Italy.
The initial plan calls for a 20-megawatt electrolyzer that will cut natural gas out of part of the steel production process. The firms also plan to capture oxygen from the electrolyzer for use on site.
If all goes according to plan, the partners will seek additional green hydrogen opportunities at the Dalmine facility.
Batteries Vs. Fuel Cells: It’s All Good
Automakers and their stakeholders have been duking it out over the market for zero-emission electric vehicles, and until recently it looked like battery technology would hold exclusive title to decarbonizing the transportation sector.
However, hydrogen fuel cells have been getting a foothold in heavy-duty applications such as long-haul trucking. Companies like Linde also see application in buses and local delivery, at least in areas where routes and scheduling give the advantage to fuel cells.
That’s good news for climate action fans. In terms of accelerating global decarbonization, a thriving green hydrogen transportation sector would help offset any bottlenecks in the battery supply chain, and vice versa.
With that in mind, let’s circle back around to the idea of leveraging existing fossil infrastructure to push more green hydrogen into the global supply chain. Linde is a big deal all by itself, but what if the entire state of Texas made the shift?
After all, Texas has been an epicenter of global oil and gas production for generations, so it is loaded with all sorts of energy infrastructure that could be applied to hydrogen.
Wonder no more. Last week the University of Texas hosted a conference billed as the “Texas Hydrogen Roundtable.” That leaves some wiggle room for fossil hydrogen, but probably not for long. The main focus is on leveraging the state’s considerable wind and solar resources to steer its existing fossil infrastructure in a more sustainable direction, so keep an eye on that.
Follow me on Twitter.
Photo: Hydrogen fuel cell bus courtesy of Linde Group.