The search for clean energy solutions to the world’s needs for energy continues to expand. Scientists know that we’re dealing with a climate crisis and that we need to take steps to change how we produce energy, or the damage we are doing to our ecosystem might not be reversible for centuries. While solar plants and wind farms assist in the clean energy revolution, and there has been a recent resurgence into nuclear power as an option, the truth is that natural gas is and will remain a large part of most countries’ energy resources. What if we could make natural gas cleaner? What if natural gas was the key to unlocking one of the cleanest sources of energy on the planet, hydrogen?
Hydrogen as a fuel
Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on the planet. The problem is that it is rarely found by itself. As we all learned in school, all the water in the world is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Hydrogen is bound to other elements and has to be separated and sequestered from them to be used as an energy source. This makes harvesting hydrogen an expensive and challenging process. The good news is that when hydrogen is used as a fuel source, it doesn’t generate any greenhouse gasses. The only by-product created by the combustion of hydrogen is water. So how can we efficiently gain access to hydrogen?
For decades the standard process for removing hydrogen from natural gas has been a process known as “steam methane reforming” or SMR. All natural gas contains some methane, and methane’s chemical composition is CH4, or one carbon molecule and four hydrogen molecules. This makes methane a prime candidate for the harvesting of hydrogen. The problem with SMR is that it allows for oxygen to be part of the hydrogen separating process and causes the formation of greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide) to be formed. So while hydrogen itself is a clean energy source, the process by which it is obtained isn’t clean or environmentally friendly. There has been a movement to attempt to use carbon capture technologies to prevent the escape of these greenhouse gasses so that SMR can be turned into a more environmentally safe process. While this is a better option than merely letting the gasses escape, there is an option that prevents the gasses from being created entirely.
Hydrogen pyrolysis is a process by which the hydrogen is exposed to overwhelming heat in a sealed chamber with no oxygen. When this process is performed, the methane and carbon base elements have nothing else to bind to and separate completely. The hydrogen is pure hydrogen, and the carbon is solid formed carbon. Hydrogen pyrolysis requires electricity to be performed, and as long as this heat is sourced from renewable electricity or from burning clean hydrogen, the whole process generates no greenhouse gas and is considered carbon neutral. Beyond the benefit of being much better for the planet, the process of hydrogen pyrolysis is far less energy intensive than SMR and allows for more hydrogen to be harvested at a far lower cost.
Another significant benefit of this form of hydrogen capture is that it also allows for the pure carbon in the methane to be obtained. It is nearly impossible to list all of the products that need carbon in order to be made. These include steel, industrial diamonds, paints, inks, electronics, and so much more. Access to an abundance of carbon allows a company to have a valuable commodity to sell to a diverse customer base. While working on solutions to address the climate crisis is important, it is obviously very beneficial to be able to produce goods that industries need, and hydrogen pyrolysis is a process that allows those who use it to be able to make two separate and valuable products.
There are other ways to obtain hydrogen, for example, experimental ideas like genetically modified green algae that consume water when exposed to sunlight and release hydrogen as part of that process. However, these options are still a long way from becoming commercially viable. Right now, there is a movement to build plants based on the concept of hydrogen pyrolysis. In the United States, a plant in Nebraska produces hydrogen and carbon via the hydrogen pyrolysis method and is seeking to expand its capabilities. Another project in development in Oregon uses technology from Modern Electron to generate clean hydrogen in the city of Portland.
One of the primary uses of hydrogen is to make ammonia as a powerful fertilizing agent for farmers to use to help grow their crops. Once the Nebraska plant has finished its expansion, it will provide over two hundred thousand pounds of fertilizer annually. This fertilizer will be environmentally friendly, making it very different from the ammonia that many countries have produced for all the decades before, where SRM hydrogen harvesting practices have been the standard. We will finally be able to grow the massive amounts of crops needed to feed people and do so in a way that doesn’t damage the planet.
The way forward
We expect more plants using hydrogen pyrolysis process to come online soon. A plant in Germany will be up and running by 2025. Australia will also have one opening soon, and another plant is due to be set up on the west coast of the US in the next few years. As the world turns towards renewable energy as an answer to its energy needs, it’s clear that hydrogen will play a vital role in allowing the world to transition away from the fossil fuels that have damaged our environment and have put us at risk of a climate disaster.
It might be a few decades from now, but hydrogen may replace burning natural gasses and oil in the way they replaced coal. Giving people dependable, cost-effective energy when needed without harming the planet is the best possible outcome for everyone.