Are we in the early stages of an emerging and viable hydrogen economy?
No, this is not a rhetorical question. The question commands an answer, and the hard and fast answer is yes … maybe … sort of. All kidding aside, the answer is presently driven by humanity’s need to lessen its carbon footprint, protect our planet and overcome all the technological and practical obstacles that a growing hydrogen economy would present.
To be sure, hydrogen is on a fast track at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which released its National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap this past September. The U.S. currently produces about 10 million metric tons of hydrogen annually. The problem is that this production is mostly of “gray” hydrogen, which is made with natural gas, emits greenhouse gases and leaves a carbon footprint. According to the DOE, to make gray hydrogen, “methane gas reacts with high-temperature steam under high pressure in a process that releases carbon dioxide while making the hydrogen.”
Some want to make this gray hydrogen clean by scrubbing the CO2 from the smoke-stack emissions as it is being made. Critics of this technique argue that it would prolong the use of fossil fuels rather than fade them out and that CO2 capture doesn’t deal with methane leaks, “which are a huge problem for natural gas infrastructure.” There are those who also feel that an emerging hydrogen industry would present problems of its own.
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And they would be right. As an alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen (and lots of it) needs to be stored at high pressure to supply enough energy to propel a vehicle or heat a furnace to temperature and maintain it. Though plentiful in the universe, hydrogen is expensive to produce. And as the lightest element, a threaded piping system isn’t tight enough to contain it. You need a closed and welded stainless steel system for that. Leaks become a safety hazard for a highly flammable gas that burns hotter than most of the fuels it is replacing. Now for the good news. When hydrogen burns, the only byproduct is heat and effluent steam (water).
In June 2021, the DOE launched its Hydrogen Energy Earthshot (Hydrogen Shot) program to “reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram of hydrogen in one decade.” If it achieves its goals, this program will help unlock the market potential for clean hydrogen and, in the process, “accelerate breakthroughs of more abundant, affordable and reliable clean energy solutions within the decade while creating good-paying union jobs and growing the economy.”
In keeping with clean energy initiatives, some months ago United States Steel, Equinor US Holdings and Shell US Gas & Power announced an agreement by which they would form a collaborative clean energy hub in the Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania region. The hub will feature carbon capture and storage and hydrogen production and utilization. Additionally, industrial gas supplier Air Products announced last October that it would invest $500 million to build and operate a 35-metric-ton/day facility to produce green liquid hydrogen in Massena, N.Y. This facility is scheduled to come online in 2026-2027.
On a global scale, the projects are larger, more advanced and costlier. A case in point is H2 Green Steel (H2gs) headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden. H2gs has begun construction on a $4.3 billion, fully integrated, digital and sustainable plant near the Arctic Circle in Boden, Sweden. The near-complete decarbonization of steel processing in this plant will be achieved by integrating what will become one of the world’s largest electrolysis plants powered by green hydrogen produced by fossil-free energy. Separately, H2gs and Hydro Havrand announced a partnership to explore large-scale green hydrogen production projects. Their aim is to accelerate the decarbonization of large industrial projects around the world.
As I was writing this column in early 2023, a news release came in announcing that Norway’s Blastr Green Steel (Blastr) is planning a green steel plant with an integrated hydrogen production facility in Inkoo, Finland. Blastr has entered into a letter of intent with Nordic energy company Fortum that provides Blastr exclusive rights to utilize a brownfield site located in Inkoo. The approximately $4.2 billion investment is expected to start by the end of 2026 and will produce 2.5 million tons of hot- and cold-rolled green steel annually. Blastr will replace coke and coal with hydrogen in the chemical reduction phase and reduce the CO2 footprint along the entire value chain by up to 95%.
There are truly many technological, practical, political and economic barriers to overcome before hydrogen overtakes fossil fuels in our economy – if it ever does. It will take time, and maybe generations, before we’re ready. So given our penchant of naming generations, such as Gen X, Y and Z, I offer Gen Hydro if and when that time ever comes. Sooner or later, I think it will have to.
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