The debate over the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future is getting fiery hot. Hydrogen is an abundant, zero emission fuel, but almost all of the hydrogen in today’s market comes from natural gas, which is a significant contributor to the greenhouse gas problem. Yikes! Well, it appears that the US Department of Energy is determined to settle the question once and for all, and so far green hydrogen is winning.
Why Is Everybody Talking Fuel Cell Cars When There Is So Much Else To Talk About?
Hydrogen is a zero emission fuel, and much of the attention around hydrogen has focused on its use in fuel cell electric cars, and whether or not fuel cell cars make any sense. That’s not surprising. Everybody loves cars, and everybody loves to drive, and everybody loves to talk about cars and driving. Add racing cars, luxury cars, and hypercars to the mix, and that’s a lot of talk — and to some, that’s a lot of hot air, too.
On the other hand, passenger cars are only one part of the mobility market. A growing number of automakers are dipping a toe in the fuel cell waters, and some of that activity has focused on the rather less glamorous area of fuel cell trucks. If the fuel cell passenger car idea fizzles out (which some believe it will and/or should), auto makers will have plenty of opportunities to push the demand for hydrogen in other areas.
Fuel cells are catching on for watercraft, aircraft, construction vehicles, and other heavy duty equipment. Add the US Department of Defense and its contractors to the mix, and the idea of putting a fuel cell in motion begins to make sense.
The thing that doesn’t make any sense at all is the idea of fueling a zero emission fuel cell with hydrogen sourced from natural gas. The sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future is an illusion, as long as fugitive emissions from gas drilling sites and the the natural gas transportation and storage chain remain significant contributors to the climate crisis.
Then there’s that whole thing about the impact of gas drilling and drilling waste disposal on the nation’s water resources, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
The Green Hydrogen Nightmare (For Natural Gas Stakeholders)
All this talk about fuel cell cars and hydrogen has delighted oil and gas stakeholders. As demand for oil goes down, they could make at least part of the loss up with gas. In addition to the mobility market, hydrogen can be used in stationary fuel cells to power buildings and it can be used as a thermal fuel for gas turbines. There is also talk of mixing hydrogen into the gas distribution grid. Then there’s the global market for ammonia, but that’s another kettle of fish.
The point is that the natural gas market is poised for explosive growth on account of the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future. Or not, as the case may be.
There is a much larger, cleaner, and more geographically widespread source of hydrogen waiting to be tapped. That is plain old water, and it is beginning to put the actual green into the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future.
The technology for teasing so-named green hydrogen out of H2O has been around for generations, in the form of electrolysis systems. Electrolysis systems are expensive and they require an electrical current, so high costs and high energy input have kept them in the shadows until recently, when systems costs began to drop and low-cost wind and solar power burst into the market. Now, suddenly, green hydrogen is a big deal.
Who Will Be The Next Top Green Hydrogen Producer?
The natural gas lobby can talk up fossil-sourced hydrogen all they want, but the US Department of Energy appears determined to transform the nation into the world’s leading producer of green hydrogen.
Oddly enough, the Energy Department’s push for sustainable hydrogen began to gather steam during the Trump administration, including a multinational collaboration aimed at accelerating the use of offshore wind energy for hydrogen production.
That’s weird in consideration of the former President Trump’s well-known antipathy toward wind turbines, but now that’s water under the bridge. Earlier this spring, President Biden’s FY 22 budget hinted at a strong role for sustainable hydrogen, and last month the tease took concrete form, when Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced that hydrogen would be the very first area of focus under the President’s “Earthshots” energy innovation initiative.
The Hydrogen Shot program does leave some wiggle room for fossil sources, in combination with carbon capture. That will certainly help natural gas stakeholders feel better, but probably not for long. The public is beginning to sour on the “natural gas is a bridge fuel” public relations gimmick, and the consumer awareness trend is having a ripple effect on manufacturers and other gas buyers seeking to clean up their supply chains.
$52.5 Million For Hydrogen, And Green Hydrogen
If the Energy Department’s latest round of hydrogen funding is any indication, natural gas stakeholders have even less to feel joyful about. Earlier this week the agency announced a $52.5 million hydrogen funding pot, and a hefty slice is going to green hydrogen systems, including bio-based and electrochemical pathways as well as electrolysis.
Included in the mix are projects aimed at capturing carbon from steam reformation systems, which is the primary method for extracting hydrogen from natural gas. However, steam reformation can also be applied to biogas, so improvements in the carbon capture area could end up being a two-edged sword.
West Virginia To Lead The Hydrogen Economy Of the Future
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at that Energy Department announcement, which highlighted funding for hydrogen research at the University of West Virginia and included supportive quotes for WVU from both of the US Senators representing the Mountain State, Democrat Joe Manchin (yes, that Joe Manchin) and Republican Shelley Moore Capito.
Interesting! West Virginia happens to be the historic epicenter of US coal production, and now that the coal industry is withering away the state is leaning on its natural gas resources to stay afloat. Or maybe not, as the case may be.
“West Virginia University continues to utilize our state’s vast natural gas resources to tackle some of the toughest challenges in industrial research, including by developing clean, innovative ways to produce hydrogen – a fuel that’s increasingly important to our economy and has potential to decarbonize our energy systems, industrial processes, and the transportation sector,” said Senator Manchin, who happens to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
That sure makes it seem like WVU’s share of the $52.5 million will go for steam reformation and carbon capture, especially since its recent partnerships with the Energy Department include $3 million in funding to study the capture of emissions at shale gas sites, among other carbon capture areas of research.
However, that is not the case, at least not in the new round of funding. WVU also has a healthy advanced materials research portfolio under its belt that can apply to green hydrogen. That is where its $1 million share of the new funding pot will go, under the project name Designing Internal Surfaces of Porous Electrodes in Solid Oxide Electrolysis Cells for Highly Efficient and Durable Hydrogen Production.
Here, let’s have the Energy Department explain:
“West Virginia University Research Corporation will develop and implant highly active and robust nano-scale coating layers to the internal surface of a porous electrode. The coating layer will be developed using the additive manufacturing process of atomic layer deposition (ALD) and will be implanted on the internal surface of porous electrodes of the as fabricated commercial cells directly. The project will provide a simple solution to various materials challenges at the cell level and could further enable extensive and more efficient SOEC stacks and systems.”
For those of you keeping score at home, the school will combine its $1 million in Energy Department funding with $250,000 from other sources, for a total of $1,250,000.
Green Hydrogen In, Natural Gas Out, Eventually
The new $52.5 million round of hydrogen funding is also of interest because it sets the tone for the Energy Department’s newly formed Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which used to be the plain old Office of Fossil Energy until the Biden Administration swooped in and reoriented towards the agency’s climate action mission.
Twelve of the 31 projects in the $52.5 million pie come under FECM. Most of those, like the WVU project, deal with electrolysis materials and systems that can apply to green hydrogen as well as fossil hydrogen. Another project aims at blending hydrogen into gas turbines and distribution systems, an area in which private sector stakeholders are already eyeballing the market for green hydrogen.
Only two of the twelve projects involve carbon capture from natural gas-to-hydrogen systems. One deals with steam reformation. The other involves the emerging field of ATR, for autothermal reforming.
Shell is a reportedly a big fan of ATR, but on the other hand it is also a big fan of wind power, and it is lending its expertise to a new green hydrogen project in New Jersey that will deploy offshore wind energy from the proposed Atlantic Shores wind farm, which is a partnership between Shell New Energies US and EDF Renewables.
Interesting! It looks like some fossil energy stakeholders are better at hedging than others. Natural gas will not disappear from the global economy overnight, but the stage is set for green hydrogen to push it to the sidelines, which will hopefully occur in time to prevent the climate crisis from getting any worse than it is now.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Hydrogen featured at top of US Energy Department home page.