If Hydrogen Is Energy’s Future, Where Will It Come From?
by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator
“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but only available to us locked up in compounds like fossil fuels, gasses and water. It takes a great deal of energy to liberate those hydrogen molecules”
Remi Eriksen, DNV Group President and CEO, Quoted from the DNV Hydrogen Forecast to 2050
As the world grapples with how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is heightened interest in hydrogen as part of the solution. Hydrogen can potentially decarbonize several important energy-intensive fuels and processes. These include heating buildings, fueling industrial processes, generating electricity, and powering transportation. In many of these sectors, reducing emissions has proven difficult.
Hydrogen also is useful as a means of storing energy. It can be stored to balance supply and demand much like natural gas, coal, or oil. And when produced using renewable energy, hydrogen offers a means of storing variable electric generation such as wind and solar.
Because hydrogen in nature is commonly found in compounds, we must separate it from other substances to use it as a fuel. Growth of a robust hydrogen fuel economy requires development of environmentally friendly and economic hydrogen production to perform the separation. Let’s look at how hydrogen is produced today and how the production industry is likely to evolve in the future.
How hydrogen is produced
Hydrogen is commonly produced using one of three processes: reforming, gasification, and electrolysis.
Steam methane reforming (SMR):
There are multiple types of reforming, but by far the most common is SMR. SMR is responsible for most of today’s commercially produced hydrogen. In this process, high temperature steam is used to separate hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms in a fossil fuel, usually natural gas. The process results in a syngas comprised mostly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This is then converted to hydrogen and CO2. The production of CO2 results in creation of a greenhouse gas, so current SMR production is not considered to be environmentally friendly. In the future carbon capture technology may improve, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the economics of doing so are currently uncertain. Production of hydrogen from natural gas using SMR with carbon capture is called blue hydrogen. Without carbon capture, production from natural gas is called gray hydrogen.
Hydrogen can be produced from coal or biomass using the gasification process, which is a well-established technology. In this process, coal is partially oxidated by air, oxygen, steam, or CO2 to produce a syngas. Like with SMR, this process releases CO2, so gasification of fossil fuels must include carbon capture technology to be a future clean hydrogen source. The economics of doing so are uncertain. If biomass is used as the fuel source, the process may be considered carbon neutral, but the process to do so has not been widely developed since biomass supply is limited and there are many other uses for the available biomass. Hydrogen produced from coal is classified as either black or brown hydrogen depending on the type of coal.
Electrolysis splits hydrogen from water using an electric current. While not yet widely used on a commercial basis, electrolysis could become a significant source of clean hydrogen if performed using a source of electricity such as renewables or nuclear. It also offers a way to store excess electric generation as energy that’s not needed at the time it’s produced can be used to create hydrogen for storage. This can then be used later to produce electricity using hydrogen-powered gas turbines or reciprocating engines. If zero-carbon electricity is used, this process does not result in emissions of greenhouse gasses. Hydrogen produced from renewable energy is called green hydrogen, while hydrogen produced from nuclear energy is called pink hydrogen.
To meet hydrogen’s environmental potential as a zero- or low-carbon alternative, the industry must shift to greener production methods. While there is some interest in greening SMR production through use of carbon capture technology, much of the energy industry is currently focused on developing electrolysis powered by renewable or nuclear energy. Critically important will be reducing the costs of electrolysis, which are significantly higher than other means of producing hydrogen. Also important will be the development of an industry to transport hydrogen to consumers. While there is much work to be done, governments and private industry are optimistic and are spending billions of dollars to facilitate the future hydrogen economy.
Want to learn more about hydrogen and its future in the energy industry? Check out Enerdynamics' newest online, on-demand course Introduction to Hydrogen. This 60-minute course discusses the physical properties of hydrogen; the units we use to measure it; how it is producted, transported, and stored; how it is used in various end-use sectors; safety and environmental impacts; and challenges to broad adoption. Get details here.
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