Every year, we see the impact of global warming becoming greater. Every year we seem to have record high temperatures, droughts, wildfires, increasingly more powerful hurricanes and floods. This puts stress on our energy infrastructure to withstand all these events. In the face of these challenges, people are looking for energy solutions that can be viable in the market while also being good for the environment. Many countries are working to reduce their carbon footprint in the hopes of reducing emissions to try to turn the tide of climate change.
Natural gas has always been a big part of the energy system. After the fracking boom in America, the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas. And since 2015, natural gas has been the US’s number one source of electrical energy. Given that natural gas is such a staple of the industry, one must ask what can be done to mitigate the impact that natural gas has on the environment.
How can hydrogen be used more?
One of the first ways that we can achieve cleaner natural gas is by blending in hydrogen to the gas. Hydrogen isn’t a greenhouse gas. It’s a simple element that, when consumed, only gives off water as a byproduct. At the moment, companies are attempting to blend up to twenty percent hydrogen into natural gas pipelines to lower the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when natural gas is burned. Studies indicate that this hydrogen blending has reduced emissions by seven percent. Unfortunately, this seems to be the limit for what our current infrastructure can handle regarding the amount of hydrogen that can be injected into existing natural gas pipes. But what if we could replace the natural gas that we’re burning without negatively impacting our existing infrastructure?
How can we harvest hydrogen?
Separating the base elements out of compounds is a well-understood process that people have been doing for hundreds of years. The standard process for stripping hydrogen out of methane is known as the steam methane reforming. All-natural gas contains methane, which has the chemical structure CH4, which means that it contains four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom. Methane is an abundant source of hydrogen.
In the steam methane reforming process, an extremely hot stream of steam (which can be heated to over one thousand degrees Celsius) is used to break apart the bonds of the methane. This produces hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. After this initial breaking down of the elements is achieved, further refining is used to ensure that the hydrogen that had been harvested is without impurities from the other elements.
When done without any safeguards for the escaping carbon gasses, this process is known as “gray hydrogen” and is extremely harmful for the environment. Companies that capture the escaping carbon dioxide gas can be said to be producing “Blue hydrogen”. This is a major upgrade from gray hydrogen, but still doesn’t deal with the underlying problem of how to recompress, transport, and permanently store the captured CO2.
The most efficient way to get clean hydrogen out of natural gas is a process known as clean methane pyrolysis. Unlike steam methane reforming, this process doesn’t allow for the creation of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Instead this process allows for the hydrogen to be harvested, while the carbon is turned directly into solid carbon. When heated with electricity, the process is one hundred percent carbon neutral if the electricity used during this process comes from renewable energy sources. This form of hydrogen harvesting is known in the industry as “turquoise hydrogen” and is one of the cleanest ways to siphon hydrogen from our abundant natural gas resources.
While hydrogen is plentiful in the world, there are a number of challenges to using it widely as a primary source of energy. First is the fact that hydrogen is almost always bound to other elements and requires effort to separate it from the other elements it’s connected to. While methane pyrolysis is not new, technology innovation in the field is growing rapidly. Clean pyrolysis products like Modern Hydrogen look toward a future where hydrogen will play a vital role in the green energy future we need to put in place to try to reverse the effects of climate change.
There are two big advantages that methane pyrolysis has over the other forms of hydrogen extraction. Firstly, it requires far less energy to initiate the process than the other methods. This allows businesses working in this area to save money on electricity usage. The additional advantage is even greater for these businesses because harvesting carbon along with hydrogen gives them two products to sell to customers. While hydrogen is a clean fuel source that is being brought into the green energy system, carbon’s place in the world is well established. From the graphite in our pencils to the inks and paints we use every day, to the tires our cars use to get to work and back, carbon has an almost limitless amount of uses in the world. Having a steady supply of carbon along with hydrogen makes methane pyrolysis plants an appealing option for businesses and investors. Some commercial plants are already open, while more are expected to be online soon as this field is growing alongside the renewable energy staples in wild farms and solar plants.
New technology for the future
Turning natural gas into a clean energy source is no longer just a possibility; it’s a reality. The technology is finally catching up with the theories, and now the hope that one day a green energy grid that can use wind, solar, and hydrogen is becoming more realistic. The world made the transition away from coal and earned the benefits of cleaner skies. Now it’s likely that in the next decade or so, we’ll be able to move past the use of natural gas and finally establish a carbon-neutral energy grid that people can rely on. The challenge that climate change presents Is daunting, but innovative solutions like methane pyrolysis are on the right track to solving it.
The Modern Electron approach is to distribute and deliver hydrogen via methane, and then strip the carbon out of the natural gas at the point of use. Instead of creating hydrogen at the point of source and then moving it – which would mean replacing the existing pipeline infrastructure – we are using the whole infrastructure as before and not removing the carbon until the end destination.
Now, there are new technologies in development that use electricity for methane pyrolysis, but this by definition usually ends up having its own carbon footprint and is can be dependent on electrical grids that are already capacity constrained. So we are developing a method that doesn’t use electricity in order to truly decarbonize the whole process.
The hydrogen produced and delivered at the point of use is generally categorized as turquoise hydrogen, but the technical name is continuous combustion pyrolysis (CCP).