Author: Charles (Chase) Phillips
Hometown: Tri-Cities, WA
This page was initiated in the summer of 2020 when I was a Sophomore in Mechanical Engineering at WSU. I undertook the responsibility of lead authoring this page out of a desire to educate those in the region, knowing that as a novice to this subject, I could state many of the problems in a way more accessible to the general public of the Pacific Northwest.
What is hydrogen? Where does it come from? How do we use it? These are a few of the questions that I hope to answer in this Hydrogen 101 series. This series is trying to inform people of all backgrounds about the many aspects of hydrogen, from the science behind it to the economic possibilities created. Although focused on the Pacific Northwest, the topics discussed in this series will be able to translate to many other locations. This series will grow and expand as my knowledge of hydrogen does. I am taking the reader along my journey of learning about hydrogen. Hydrogen is too crucial to the sustainable and clean energy movement to be ignored. Hydrogen will play a significant role, and this series aims to help by getting the public involved and get new professionals in the field.
What are you looking for?
What is hydrogen?
Many people have some concept of what hydrogen is or how it could be used. Hearing of hydrogen in school, online, or on the news, they make the connection that it is important, but they often may not know why.
To discuss why hydrogen is so important, we first need to lay the groundwork of hydrogen. Hydrogen is often known as element one. It is the first element on the periodic table, consisting of one proton and one electron in its most abundant state. There are other forms of hydrogen, but for now, we will stick with the standard one. Many people will also note that hydrogen is in the water molecule. Water (H2O) has two hydrogen atoms, giving it unique properties that make it a very useful compound. Those that are interested in space would also note that our sun is made of hydrogen. Our sun’s immense energy is from the fusion of hydrogen into helium atoms under the massive pressure and heat. They may also say that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (74% of known mass). Hydrogen is found everywhere, in vast quantities, and has excellent energy storage potential.
With the foundation of what hydrogen is, the next question some may ask is where does it come from? In the next post of this series, I will discuss the methods used to produce hydrogen.
The shapes of hydrogen
Where does hydrogen come from?
Although hydrogen is everywhere, for it to be used for energy we must separate the hydrogen from other atoms and molecules. In this section we will discuss the most common ways hydrogen can be produced and introduce a simple way to understand the quality or value of hydrogen produced.
The following figure color categories to describe how hydrogen is produced. Green hydrogen is produced without carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from renewable electricity and water or biomass and algae. Blue hydrogen is produced with CO2 emissions but in ways that capture and permanently store those CO2 emissions. Grey hydrogen is produced with CO2 emissions.
Currently most hydrogen produced is grey hydrogen. The most popular methods of hydrogen production are natural gas reforming (often Steam-Methane Reformation) and coal gasification. High-temperature steam reacts with methane to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon monoxide reacts with water to produce carbon dioxide (captured) and hydrogen. In coal gasification, oxygen and steam react with coal under high temperature and pressure to form a gas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon monoxide reacts with water to produce carbon dioxide and hydrogen, like natural gas reformation. The problem is that even natural gas reformation results in 7 kg of CO2 emitted (and often captured) for every 1 kg of H2 produced.
Thankfully, the ways we produce hydrogen are rapidly changing. Growing technologies for hydrogen use biomass or microorganisms. In biomass gasification and biomass-derived liquid reforming, biomass is converted to hydrogen in a controlled process using heat, steam, and oxygen without combustion. With the liquid reforming, the liquids are easier to transport than the traditional biomass. This technology shows promise, especially in the PNW and Palouse region. The Palouse and Columbia Basin in the PNW produce a large sum of the country’s agricultural products. All these products have excess biomass that could produce hydrogen, feeding back into the system as either fuel for machinery or fertilizer, but more on that later. The photobiological process uses microorganisms and sunlight to turn water into hydrogen. It is in the early stages of research, focusing on increasing the process’s rates and yields. Microbial biomass conversion also uses microorganisms, consuming and digesting biomass and releasing hydrogen without the need for sunlight. This process could be useful in wastewater treatment.
Two other hydrogen production processes utilize renewable energy. Thermochemical water splitting uses high temperatures to drive a series of reactions. The chemicals are reused in the reactions each time, creating a closed cycle that consumes only water, producing hydrogen and oxygen. Concentrated sunlight with mirrors or excess nuclear reactor energy supplies the heat. The other process is electrolysis, which is the one that HYPER uses in its research. It uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in an electrolyzer. The electrolyzer consists of an anode and a cathode separated by an electrode. This process could be hooked up to a renewable energy plant to generate hydrogen off the excess energy. With the massive amounts of renewable energy in the PNW, this could be a great way to store the excess energy produced and use it when the energy output dips below the demand.
With the vast number of hydrogen sources covered, next, we will cover the uses of hydrogen.
How do we use hydrogen?
Hydrogen fuel cells serve a similar purpose to batteries; they store energy for later use. Hydrogen fuel cells are used as a battery alternative or in tandem with batteries to lean on its advantages (described later). In a fuel cell, hydrogens fed to the anode, and oxygen from air fed to the cathode. A catalyst at the anode separates the hydrogen into protons and electrons. The electrons make the electricity, and the protons combine with the oxygen at the cathode to make water and heat as byproducts. The process runs in reverse when storing energy by producing hydrogen. This process is very different from traditional batteries, and this is just where the differences begin.
Hydrogen has four critical differences between batteries. The first is a fuel cell is refueled rather than recharged. Refueling allows for far quicker downtime. Rather than waiting 30 minutes to recharge a battery vehicle, a fuel cell vehicle would only take 5 minutes, like a traditional gas car. The second difference is wearing on the fuel cell. A battery gradually wears down the more it is recharged and depleted. A hydrogen fuel cell does not suffer from this. It continuously keeps its potential energy storage, allowing for an extended lifetime. The third difference is the time between refills. Fuel cells can go longer between refueling because of hydrogen’s specific energy. Specific energy is the energy held by a certain amount of fuel or number of batteries. For example, 1 gallon of gasoline (about 2.9kg) has about the same energy as 1 kg of hydrogen. Hydrogen also has a far higher specific energy than batteries. This higher specific energy allows vehicles to have a smaller tank that weighs less for the same range, allowing for more vehicle space. It could also use the same size tank, making the vehicle lighter and extending its range far beyond what battery or gas cars can achieve. The fourth difference is efficiency. Energy efficiency is the ratio of energy that comes out to the energy that goes in. Although hydrogen efficiency has increased over the years, it is not as efficient as batteries yet. With this disadvantage, currently, the pros and cons must be weighed out.
With hydrogens advantages in specific energy, long term use, and refuel time, the applications that see the most significant benefits have long run times for machines/vehicles. Public transportation (busses, trains, planes), shipping (semi-trucks, barges, cargo ships), and industry (agriculture, forestry) could all have massive benefits from lighter tanks, longer trips, and less downtime. Not to mention that in a few of those key industries, a battery-powered machine is not practical, if even possible.
With how and why we should use hydrogen as a fuel source covered, the next question is, what are the challenges of hydrogen?
What are the challenges?
There are storage challenges to overcome before hydrogen can be a reliable storage of renewable energy.
One of hydrogen’s main challenges is efficiency. In the hydrogen production process, energy is consumed. After the hydrogen has been stored, it can later be remade into energy. The issue is, during this process it takes more energy to make hydrogen than what it produces. There is extensive research and development in this challenge.
The second part of inefficiencies is boil-off. Boil-off is when liquid hydrogen is being stored and it heats up, turning it back into a gas. This results in a loss of energy potential, making liquid hydrogen less efficient as an energy storage.
Hydrogen’s second challenge is public involvement. There is a narrative persistently pushed that hydrogen is dangerous. The fact of that matter is that the way we use hydrogen is not dangerous. The concentration of hydrogen that is stored is above the flammability range, meaning is has no way to ignite. On top of that, where there is a hydrogen leak, it rapidly escapes into the atmosphere due to its low mass, taking it far away from anything it may pose a danger to.
This preconceived public perception has led to a lack of hydrogen infrastructure and investment, especially here in the pacific north west. This lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for the many uses of hydrogen to come to public use, furthering the problems of low investment. This is like trying to get someone to invest in a gas-powered car when there is not even a gas station in their state.
What is the future of hydrogen in the PNW?
Hydrogen has a bright future in the pacific northwest. With large tech industries, hydrogen could see tremendous innovation and implementation over the next few years. The PNW has access to large renewable energy facilities that could be used to produce hydrogen. That hydrogen could then be used in several of the region’s largest industries: shipping, public transportation, and agriculture.
Hydrogen production has massive potential when integrated with the PNW’s diverse and expansive renewable energy sector. Washington state currently exports energy, and our renewable output will continue to grow in efficiency. Hydrogen production facilities could be built to produce hydrogen off the excess energy. For example, an electrolyzer and storage facility could be built near to a hydroelectric dam. The dam would send a predetermined amount of electricity from surplus output to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen could then be distributed throughout the region using current gas pipelines with slight modifications and tanker trucks. This system could be all over the region, at every dam, windfarm, and solar field.
This massive increase in hydrogen production could benefit many key industries like shipping, public transportation, and agriculture.
Shipping through trucking, cargo ships, and barges could benefit from using hydrogen fuel cell technology. Being hydrogen powered, they could have a longer trip range, higher cargo capacity, less carbon emissions, and the efficiency, power, and speed of electric motors.
Public transportation in busses, planes, and trains could have many of the same benefits as shipping. It could have longer trip range, create less air pollution and the efficiency, power, and speed the electric power offers. This would even allow for large expansions to the current public transportation system. Imagine, in 20-30 years there could be an all-electric high-speed rail system that goes all over the region, all powered by hydrogen.
Agriculture holds the possibility of the greatest benefit from hydrogen integration. Farms could become self-sustaining, producing their own hydrogen. They could have their own small solar or wind power plants to generate electricity. They could then use that electricity to power their home, appliances, and other needs. The excess electricity would then be sent to an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen, on site. They then have the fuel for the machinery needed, and the machines would be more efficient and have more power.
With the bright future of hydrogen in the PNW laid out, next we will discuss the reasons that you and every person in the region should care.
Why should I care?
Asking why you should care is the most important question. Hydrogen is a crucial step in combating the effects of global climate change. The implementation of hydrogen production and distribution systems will also help diversify and strengthen our region’s economy.
Building out the PNW’s clean energy infrastructure will both help reduce climate change and strengthen our economy. An increase in clean energy production, storage, and use will decrease the regions carbon output. This increase in clean energy in the PNW will also allow the region to produce more of its own energy needs, becoming self-reliant. A decrease in the imports of oil and natural gas will allow for a more sustainable future where the price to refuel your car doesn’t rely on global prices. The PNW could become a leading exporter in clean energy storage and systems, strengthening our economy, raising the GDP, and creating more jobs in the industry.
The next questions many will ask is how they can help. There are the two challenges that are faced by hydrogen: innovation in technology and public investment. Choose the challenge that best fits your skill set. If you’re an innovator, there is a lot of space in research and the number of spots is growing every day. If you’re excited about this new possible future you’ve just read about, get out there and tell people. Tell your friends, family, people you know in the key industries (farming, shipping, public transportation), and tell your politicians. Simply being an informed voter or public voice can do a lot to shape the future of our region. So, get out there.