Many see the future of hydrogen as a fuel rooted in the ability to generate it on-site. That’s partly because transporting and storing hydrogen today is expensive and challenging. The good news is that new technologies are already making it possible to generate hydrogen from conventional natural gas and renewable natural gas derived from biomass. This approach to generating hydrogen is particularly interesting because it means that natural gas and existing natural gas pipelines can be used to transport hydrogen atoms to the exact point of use. If anything, people see on-site hydrogen as the next big thing, especially when it comes to heating factories and buildings, powering vehicles and trucks, and fueling power generators with a clean hydrogen supply.
A number of different technology companies are pursuing different methods for on-site hydrogen generation. Typical hydrogen feedstocks include water, ammonia, and natural gas. One technique for on-site hydrogen generation uses narrow, credit card-sized channels designed to transfer heat. The US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab developed the technology. These so-called microchannels are highly efficient at driving heat energy directly into the chemical reactions needed to produce hydrogen, which can then be diverted to various heat and power purposes, including industrial operations.
This and other on-site hydrogen reactors, as they are called, is that energy users can now generate hydrogen gas at a comparatively lower price point, without the traditional logistics hassles associated with transporting it.
The USDOE generator profiled above features two innovations expected to lower the cost of hydrogen production. The first is using a new additive manufacturing process licensed by SoCalGas and STARS TC, both Los Angeles-based gas companies serving 22 million people in Southern and Central California.
The other is a spiral reactor type design that works to distribute heat precisely while improving the efficiency of the so-called reactor. SoCalGas is the largest gas utility in the USA and has an exclusive license to sell this generator. This reactor design is interesting because it attempts to minimize energy use while maximizing the amount of hydrogen produced. Given the expected operating environment, this and other on-site hydrogen generators have to be safe and durable.
One of the immediate uses for on-site hydrogen generation technologies will be to generate hydrogen for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell technologies are interesting because they can generate power for vehicles and Class-8 trucks with a relatively small footprint and high process efficiency. By converting natural gas into hydrogen, on-site hydrogen generation companies like Modern Electron enable wide access to clean fuels with the economic benefit of a pre-existing distribution network. At the end of the day, this means a much cleaner fuel that’s easy to deliver because it can generate hydrogen anywhere near a natural gas pipeline.
Many experts see these technologies as a significant step in meeting the country’s net-zero goals. The technologies can change how hydrogen is produced in California and the entire country.
Since the latest technologies are meant to help generate reliable hydrogen fuel just about anywhere there is natural gas, these technologies can help reduce the need to haul hydrogen gas in expensive tube trailers. Not only is it cheaper, but by eliminating on-road transit, it also makes the roads safer and reduces greenhouse gas emissions which are, after all, the whole point of using hydrogen.
These small hydrogen generators can be considered miniature transformers with excellent operating efficiency, similar to an electric grid. They can be placed along a natural gas distribution system, turning it into a hydrogen grid, and ensuring that industries and fueling stations are supplied with relatively inexpensive hydrogen.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is part of many other gases such as methane and liquids like water. Natural gas is mainly made up of methane and is a highly efficient hydrogen carrier. The only challenge is extracting hydrogen from natural gas in a low-polluting, cost-effective method.
Traditional hydrogen production from natural gas emits much carbon dioxide and requires a lot of energy. However, the latest pyrolysis production methods use various approaches, including solar thermal and solar-derived electric heating, which heats the natural gas to help break its chemical bonds. The result is 30% less CO2 than other processes.
Many licensed hydrogen production processes are getting more efficient, reducing the thermal energy needed to produce high-value hydrogen. Most of these processes work by passing methane through proprietary heat exchanger designs, including small, coil-like microchannels. The channels are often no thicker than a few millimeters. This ensures that the feedstock is evenly exposed to heat, allowing the chemical reaction to liberate hydrogen from water and/or natural gas.
Since hydrogen can be produced cleanly and economically, many experts believe it is poised to change how we heat and power everything from electric vehicles to homes and grids.
Future advancements currently being worked on include using 3D printing to lower the cost of manufacturing the devices that produce hydrogen. This includes producing microchannel heat exchangers. Not only will 3D printing make the production processes cheaper, but the maintenance and efficiency of these reactors will be more cost-effective.
3D printing and additive manufacturing processes help lower manufacturing costs, reduce parts, and help form geometric shapes, which would otherwise not be possible with traditional machining and casting processes. This helps to minimize time-consuming fabrication stages from the manufacturing equation.
Many companies developing on-site hydrogen generation technologies are looking at advanced 3D printing manufacturing techniques to build improved heat transfer structures faster and cheaper. Plus, materials can be coated with various catalysts to speed up chemical conversion. But catalysts come with their own drawbacks, including increased operating costs and more frequent service cycles. Modern Electron’s heat-driven on-site hydrogen generators operate without catalysts.
A number of national labs and hydrogen technology companies are also working on novel chemical reactors that produce solid carbon and hydrogen from natural gas. Solid carbon materials can produce various construction materials, tires, pigments, and new carbon-based products. This carbon black material can offset the cost of producing hydrogen while ensuring that the carbon does not make its way into the atmosphere. Combined with renewable natural gas, this new category of on-site hydrogen generator can help local gas utilities (also known as “Local Delivery Companies” or LDCs) reach their net-zero goals by 2045 at a relatively low cost.
Bill Gates backs Modern Electron’s hydrogen generator technology. SoCalGas’ hydrogen generator technology is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office. Other technology programs are supported by the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and various Fuel Cell Technology groups. Now that the technology has arrived, this wide body of support is helping to ensure that widely available on-site hydrogen production is only a matter of time.