Why Hydrogen Production Needs Major Innovation
Hydrogen production has been around for quite some time. The first electrolyzers were developed in the early 19th century by chemists William Nicholson, Anthony Carlisle, and Michael Farraday. Since then, the technology for electrolysis has been significantly improved upon, but it would still require major shifts in the energy industry to even begin to see a move towards a larger hydrogen economy.
According to S&P Global, several drops in cost surrounding hydrogen production must come to fruition in order to see progress in a hydrogen-based economy. Electrolysis, the currently dominant method for green hydrogen production, is entirely dependent upon renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The cost of producing green hydrogen from renewables would need to “fall more than 50% to $2.0/kg-$2.5/kg by 2030 to make hydrogen a viable alternative.” This would require solar and wind production costs to decrease significantly, as well as a 30%-50% decrease in electrolyzer cost. These cost decreases would require dramatic increases in renewables and electrolyzer manufacturing. Even with the current push for renewable energy, such an increase is not likely to reach the necessary levels to make hydrogen dominant by 2030.
Another approach to increasing renewable energy and hydrogen infrastructure is by simply pouring a lot of money into it. This would require government spending to pay for hydrogen infrastructure growth, significant subsidies for green hydrogen producers, and potentially carbon taxes at the energy wholesale level. While this can work and is working currently in countries that are dedicating incredibly large sums to emissions reduction — and therefore the growth of the hydrogen infrastructure, it can’t work across the board. Not only has politics often proven to be an obstacle to this kind of spending (as well as economic concerns over growing government debt), but this level of spending isn’t an option for less developed nations.
Developing countries cannot afford to transition to renewable energy sources in the way that developed countries can. While countries like India are already looking to solar for reducing emissions, the project is that 30% of India’s electricity will still come from coal by 2040. IRENA, in its 2021 World Energy Transitions Outlook report, states that a combination of renewables and green hydrogen is central. But, in nations that do not have the resources to rapidly grow a renewable energy infrastructure of solar and wind, the idea of growing a hydrogen infrastructure seems like a proposition for a much distant future.
A Change in Hydrogen Production Methods
The potential of hydrogen as a primary source of renewable energy is tremendous, but right now the costs are too high. The options are to wait for costs to come down as an increase in electrolyzer capacity goes up — as well as an increase in renewable energy infrastructure to power the electrolyzers, develop new technologies for cheaper hydrogen production, or both. With the IPCC setting the goal of 45% emissions reduction by 2030, hydrogen might miss its chance to play a major role if the strategy is to wait for electrolyzers to become more economically feasible. For hydrogen to become a key contributor to emissions reduction sooner rather than later, alternative methods of green hydrogen production need to be developed.
That’s where a reactant-based approach to hydrogen production comes in.
Reactant-based methods for hydrogen production, like the method used in the GenHydro reactor system, can move up the timeline significantly on reducing hydrogen production costs, making hydrogen highly competitive in the renewable energy space well before 2030. Even while a hydrogen infrastructure is still in the works, and fuel cell vehicles are still finding their footing in the automotive markets, low-cost green hydrogen from reactors can start lowering emissions now. Competitively priced emissions-free hydrogen can provide the means for the natural gas industry to transition a zero-carbon fuel — without needing to expand solar and wind infrastructure, reduce fertilizer production emissions by providing green hydrogen to ammonia plants, help logistics and public transit make the switch to fuel cell-powered trucks and buses, as well as provide a calciner fuel for steel, cement and concrete manufacturing.
The reactant-based approach also has the bonus of being an extremely exothermic process. This means that a lot of heat and pressure are generated along with the hydrogen, and that can be captured for co-generating additional energy. This energy can be used for heating or generating electricity. The hydrogen produced doesn’t need to be run through a fuel cell if large quantities of electrical generation are the goal, because the heat and pressure from the reaction can generate electricity, while the hydrogen remains available for other applications, or is run through high-capacity fuel cells for the production of additional electricity. This means that not only are these reactors producing large quantities of hydrogen, but they are producing additional energy that can be added to the grid rather than consuming energy from the grid.
While growing electrolyzer capacity is and will play a vital role in the future of the hydrogen economy, a reactant approach to hydrogen production can be economically scaled up now. This approach can help to dramatically move up current timelines, as well as further solidify the future of hydrogen in emissions-free energy production.