Step Aside, Green Hydrogen, There’s a New, Cleaner Color in Town
Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel source – it emits only water or water vapor – but until now the same cannot be said about the process to produce it.
As a fuel source, Hydrogen has not gone mainstream because it can be an energy-intensive and counterintuitively, environmentally “dirty” process to extract. The “H2” molecules bond very tightly to their counterparts in the most common compounds, methane (CH4) and water (H2O). To help us understand the level of environmental impact, the industry has come up with a color scheme to categorize the three most common methods of hydrogen production:
- Grey Hydrogen – Produced from natural gas or coal using carbon intensive processes. Typically, this involves mixing natural gas with superheated steam in the presence of a catalyst, emitting carbon dioxide as a byproduct
- Blue Hydrogen – Produced in the same way as grey hydrogen, but the carbon dioxide is captured and stored, primarily in underground formations, often at very high cost and requiring large infrastructure investment.
- Green Hydrogen – Produced using electrolysis, an electrochemical process in which water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. This process is expensive and highly reliant on the cost of electricity. Truly green hydrogen is produced using solar or wind energy to power the plant, but those power sources are underdeveloped and very expensive.
While green hydrogen has been an amazing development in the space, it represents only 0.1% of hydrogen being produced in 2020. Conversely, 99.6% of hydrogen is produced from hydrocarbons. This is because grey and blue hydrogen are more cost efficient and easier to produce. What makes green hydrogen so expensive is its reliance on the cost of the electricity needed to produce it. The United States has not yet developed the solar and wind powered energy plants needed to produce water electrolysis at scale.
Enter a new color of hydrogen… let’s call it “Clear” Hydrogen.
Clear hydrogen is produced by extracting hydrogen from water, like green hydrogen, but rather than using electrolysis to “zap” the hydrogen away from the oxygen, a new technology does so using water that is subjected to external influences coupled with extremely rapid variations in pressure, temperature and motion. There is no heat, and more importantly, no carbon used or generated in the process.
This allows for hydrogen production at significantly reduced cost, without the carbon impact of conventional methods that utilize natural gas and other fossil fuel sources. Additionally, this process is much less capital intensive and requires a much smaller physical footprint than other hydrogen technologies, further reducing costs of production.
The market size for hydrogen in 2022 is projected to be $154.74 billion. By 2050, due to a global demand for zero-carbon emissions, the green hydrogen market is expected to be valued at $12 trillion. According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. demand for hydrogen could jump between 22 million and 41 million metric tons per year by 2050, up from 10 million today.
The U.S. Department of Energy – as described in its H2@Scale initiative – is exploring hydrogen as a means to decarbonize industrial processes that have struggled to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including chemical production, hydrogen as a heating source, and iron and steel production. For example, a recent report by the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA), notes that hydrogen is being studied as a possible energy source for steel plants, which currently emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a byproduct of production.
In 2017, notes the FCHEA, every ton of steel produced resulted in an average of 1.83 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. However, since hydrogen reacts with iron oxide in a similar fashion to carbon monoxide, it can be utilized without the CO2 byproduct, assuming the process is fueled by renewable energy.
The problem the steel and other industries face is the fact that solar- or wind-powered energy plants are nowhere near ready for that volume of production. This is why everyone is looking at 2050 for their net-zero targets. They are waiting for solar or wind energy to become economically viable.
However, clear hydrogen can be scaled very quickly. If a clear hydrogen plant is powered by the hydrogen energy it produces, the energy it generates would be 100% carbon free, as would the industrial process powered by that energy. Using clear hydrogen, “green steel” could be achievable within this decade. There is no need to wait 40 years. The same goes for all other industrial processes, as well as transportation, energy storage and many other uses for which hydrogen energy is being explored.
As the world’s population yearns for a smaller carbon footprint, while increasing its need for power generation, clear hydrogen could be a very colorful solution.
Whitaker B. Irvin, Jr. is CEO of Q Hydrogen Commercialization, (www.qhydrogen.com), a Park City, Utah, based company that has developed a new technology for turning water into clean, efficient and renewable hydrogen for use in energy and electricity production, transportation and industry.