Midjourney generated image of Australia misled by hydrogen

Paul Martin Talks H2 Science Coalition & More Problems With Hydrogen

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Paul Martin, chemical engineer, principal at Spitfire Research and one of five founding members of the H2 Science Coalition, returns to CleanTech Talk. The H2 Science Coalition is only months old, formed in November 2021 as an independent advocacy and PR group for hydrogen sanity. It’s intended to counter the bags of money going into hydrogen PR that is contrary to elementary physics and economics. Previously Paul and I had talked about hydrogen end use cases, leveraging Michael Liebreich’s useful hydrogen ladder.

The H2 Science Coalition coalesced on LinkedIn. The group was violently agreeing about hydrogen, among other things. An organization devoted to helping governments get access to good advice and helping groups get access to media suggested they formalize their efforts.

It’s focused in the UK and Europe initially because the hydrogen #hopium epidemic has an epicenter there. Their founders all share three attributes: they are independent with no vested interests, they have specific expertise, and they are willing to point at unclothed emperors.

Paul’s expertise is hydrogen production, the alternatives to hydrogen production, and fuels production. Bernard van Dijk is a recently retired airplane performance lecturer at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He really hadn’t given hydrogen much thought, then looked at it and thought it was nonsense that anyone would think of using hydrogen for aviation. David Cebon is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Cambridge, England, and has a strong expertise in transportation. Tom Baxter is Visiting Professor University of Strathclyde, and ex-BP Engineer, with a broad and deep knowledge about what is done and has been done in the fossil fuel industry, including on the use of hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas. Jochen Bard is Director of Energy Process Technology Division, Fraunhofer IEE. Many at Fraunhofer are tied up with hydrogen, such as the gray goo hydrogen paste, but it’s a very big place and allows a wide variety of voices to express themselves. Jochen has an energy markets and economic perspective.

The coalition shares the opinion that replacing natural gas with hydrogen is fundamentally suspect, as is blending hydrogen with natural gas.

Their intent is to branch out to include North America and the world over time, but the current focus is on finding new members with specific expertise. Gaps include shipping, storage, geological storage, and some end use cases.

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The motivations for the hydrogen #hopium PR push are clear, but the thinking is murky. In a truly decarbonized future there is no role for natural gas as a fuel. Shell, as an example, has a lot of natural gas reserves in the ground and wants its investors and financiers to think that they still have value. The approach is to pretend that it will be turned into hydrogen and used, with carbon capture and sequestration.

Personally, Martin would never have hydrogen in his home, even though he still has a legacy natural gas service. A big part of that is that burning any gas in our nitrogen rich atmosphere creates NOx, two of which, NO and N2O, are toxic and contribute to juvenile asthma, and N2O or nitrous oxide, which has 265 times the global warming potential of CO2 and sticks around for at least 100 years. It’s a nasty molecule which we can’t make a lot more of if we are serious about fighting climate change.

Town gas often comes up with discussions of hydrogen, as it it had high hydrogen percentages. It was made from coal, and it also had a lot of carbon monoxide, hence the historical tradition of putting heads in ovens. It was called town gas for a reason. It was made in each town. Every town with a system has a giant mess from the coal tar that was dumped. The dumps are often the downtowns, and we’ve spent a lot of money digging up the deposits and burying them elsewhere. The compounds that are nasty and toxic in coal tars are much the same as those in burning tobacco.

The argument that the natural gas system used to carry town gas with lots of hydrogen doesn’t wash, as the transmission for long distances of hydrogen is problematic. 20% of volume, the typical reference number, is only 6% of the energy of the displaced natural gas.

EU’s target for 2030 is 30% of hydrogen in the natural gas transmission system. Martin published a piece in CleanTechnica that details the challenges with hydrogen in existing natural gas transmission and distribution systems.

20% is a limit due to metallurgy. The ordinary soft steel used in the distribution network is fine, as long as it’s not 500° Celsius, but they don’t use soft steel in long distance transmission pipelines. Natural gas is very low corrosivity, and when building the transmission pipelines, they used the best material for natural gas. But hydrogen’s characteristics are very different, and challenging for natural gas transmission lines, especially around embrittlement.

There are a couple of types of embrittlement. One type involves plating in which electrochemical processes end up making hydrogen atoms at one of the electrodes, and they can permeate between the grains of the metal. When plated structural fasteners are used, they can become brittle. Instead of stretching, they snap.

In pipes, it’s a different phenomenon. In harder steel pipes, the hydrogen diminishes the fatigue life of the material. Pipes bend and flex over time, mostly due to daily pressure changes in the pipe, but also due to frost heaves, flooding exposure, and the like. When something gets bent again and again, the material can change its structure and end up breaking. Pipes are designed for a certain number of pressure changes.

For some pipelines, it’s 1% hydrogen. For the EU it’s 20%, and for the US it’s 4%. If hydrogen is present when flexing, the hydrogen can sneak in and fill dislocations. As an analogy, when rolling dough, adding flour to it reduces the ability of the dough to adhere to the surface. If you have two metal crystals in contact with one another, they share forces, but if that space is filled with hydrogen it can reduce their ability to stick together.

Hydrogen is like sand at a beach, bathing suits, and human crevices. It gets in there and causes irritation.

Pipes come in short lengths that are welded together. Spiral welded pipes also exist. Where welding has been used, the heat affected zone is affected differently and to a greater extent by hydrogen. At weld spots, there is a greater potential for cracks forming and propagating.

Transmission of hydrogen through long distance hard steel natural gas pipelines radically degrades their lifetimes. They aren’t long-lasting assets that can be reused, but shorter lived assets that we will be breaking.

And so, the first half of our conversation ended, with analogies of baking and beach time, heart-warming and irritating. But the second half of the conversation exists as well, for those who are members of CleanTechnica Pro. For those interested in hearing more from hydrogen expert Paul Martin, sign up.

In the second half, we talk about the problem of hydrogen diffusing through polyethylene pipes, the 2-5x the boil off rate of natural gas for shipping, trucking, or aviation, further esoteric exothermic problems with chilling hydrogen, the 24° Kelvin liquification point of hydrogen that requires 3x the energy as natural gas, the 5x global warming of hydrogen, the substantially enhanced likelihood of explosions in homes and buildings, the extra energy to move hydrogen, the lack of odorants that work with fuel cells, the prevalence of airborne wind energy types that moved into urban air mobility, the waste of public money such as the request from Suncor and ATCO for a hydrogen CCS facility for refinery use, the failure to focus public funds on actual climate solutions, and more.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 747 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard