Hydrogen: How to make it, move it and use it

By Benjamin Storrow | 05/21/2021 06:32 AM EDT

President Biden wants to expand it. Oil and gas companies think they can sell it. And many climate experts believe it may be the key to greening heavy industry.

The Air Liquide plant in Bécancour, Quebec, produces hydrogen for industrial facilities.

The Air Liquide plant in Bécancour, Quebec, produces hydrogen for industrial facilities. Air Liquide

President Biden wants to expand it. Oil and gas companies think they can sell it. And many climate experts believe it may be the key to greening heavy industry.


Earlier this week, the International Energy Agency reported that the world will need to install three hydrogen-fueled factories and 2 gigawatts of hydrogen electrolyzers every month after 2030 to have a shot at net-zero emissions by 2050 (Energywire, May 18).

Dave Edwards. Photo credit: Air Liquide
Dave Edwards. | Air Liquide

Hydrogen, in other words, has huge potential for decarbonizing the economy. It can also be used as a transportation fuel and potentially as backup for renewables on the electric grid.

The world has seen this type of hydrogen hype before. And yet much of the technology is still not commercially competitive. Most energy modelers think green hydrogen — the kind that’s made with renewable power — will begin playing a larger role after 2030.

So is the promise of hydrogen different this time? Will it lead to revolutionary changes in the energy sector? And can it be the climate solution people are hoping for?

To answer those questions, E&E News spoke with Dave Edwards, U.S. director for hydrogen energy at Air Liquide. The French industrial giant sells gas to industrial customers like chemical plants and oil refineries.

The company last year installed a 20-megawatt electrolyzer in Bécancour, Quebec. That made it the world’s largest green hydrogen facility at the time. Edwards spoke to E&E News about the Bécancour project, the future of green hydrogen and the challenges facing the technology.

When we talk about green hydrogen, it almost has this magical air about it. Like, if we work really hard, we might have it in 2050. Air Liquide has already built a green hydrogen facility in Quebec. Can you describe the facility for us? How does it produce hydrogen? How much does it make? Who’s buying it? And how do you get it to them?

Hydrogen comes from a number of different potential sources, but the two primary methods of producing hydrogen is to take water, apply electricity to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. And that’s a process called electrolysis. The facility at Bécancour that we just brought online in November or December is an electrolysis system that’s driven by hydropower in Quebec. Of course, they have a lot of hydropower there. It then produces about 8 tons per day of green hydrogen from that hydropower. And 8 tons per day represents about 20 MW of electricity going into those electrolyzers.

The other way to produce hydrogen is to take a hydrocarbon — in most cases, it’s something like methane or natural gas — to combine it with steam and then use a catalytic process to split the hydrocarbon into hydrogen and then carbon dioxide in most cases. And of course, that’s a mechanism that has some emissions, but can also become renewable or it can become green hydrogen by replacing the natural gas or the feedstock with something like dairy gas or landfill gas or what we call renewable natural gas, for example.

So even though there’s two entirely different processes to manufacture hydrogen, both of them have a renewable pathway, and both of them can be done at scale. And at Bécancour, we have both of these processes. We actually have two of the chemical processes called steam methane reformers that are able to produce hydrogen on-site, as well.

And the third source of hydrogen that’s out there that doesn’t get very much attention is sometimes a waste stream from other chemical processes. At Bécancour, for example, there’s a chlor-alkali plant that has a waste stream that’s very rich in hydrogen. And we take that waste stream, purify the hydrogen and then use that as a product. And so that’s another way that we’re capturing a waste stream and making it a low-carbon hydrogen source for our customers.

And so Bécancour is really interesting, because it’s got all of these different production methods. You can have natural gas-based hydrogen. You can have renewable natural gas-based hydrogen. You can have a waste stream-based hydrogen, and then you can have hydrogen from electrolysis from the grid — and the grid there, of course, being very renewable.

The other question is once you have the hydrogen, how do you get it to your customers? Hydrogen is normally a gas that’s stored at pressure, but it’s a very light gas. And so it’s difficult to move large quantities of it. One thing that we do is we can liquefy it. If you take it from very cold temperatures, cryogenic temperatures, you can liquefy it, and then it gets much, much more dense, and then you can move it similar to how you would move liquid petroleum fuels. You put it in a tanker truck, a well-insulated tanker truck, of course, and then you ship it by road; usually on the order of 500 to 1,000 miles is about what makes the most amount of sense. So that facility Bécancour can essentially deliver liquid hydrogen pretty much to the eastern parts of Canada, the eastern parts of the United States, economically.

Air Liquide’s primary business is selling gas to industrial customers. Do you see green hydrogen as a transportation play, or is this a way to try to scale up the technology?

If you look at most of the hydrogen production that we’re doing around the world, it is still for these industrial customers because of so many decades of investment in production facilities and the need that those industries continue to have for hydrogen. Most of our molecules are going there, but most of our investments are in these new opportunities related to energy transition.

And when we think about transportation fuels, it means things like the light-duty vehicles that are coming in California, things like heavy-duty trucks and buses. And then the single biggest market, one that people aren’t very aware of, is in warehousing, where it’s used for forklifts.

There are something like 40,000 or 50,000 forklifts in operation in the Americas that are using hydrogen as the transportation fuel. And they do it economically. They do it clean. We’re able to run inside, and they have a fantastic environmental footprint. And that is actually the biggest consumer of hydrogen for this in this transportation fuel sector today.

It is the first market. We absolutely expect that everybody who is using hydrogen today is going to start needing to shift toward renewables in their portfolio, even if it’s refineries or even if it’s specialty chemicals. There are going to be pressures for them to reduce their carbon footprint. And one way they can do that is they can change from a fossil-based feedstock of hydrogen to a renewable feedstock for hydrogen, for example.

And we expect that will happen over time, from a market opportunity perspective. Transportation fuels are leading the way. But we certainly expect those other industries to follow, especially as the cost of renewable hydrogen comes down.

One thing to keep in mind is that, of course, economics is going to drive the energy transition. And the most valuable place today for a hydrogen molecule is actually in the fuel tank of a vehicle.

So let’s talk about some of the challenges, and you started with the big one: cost. I’m assuming this project is happening in Quebec because you’ve got a supply of low-cost, zero-carbon electricity. How do you start scaling this to other regions of the world that don’t have as much hydropower?

You’re exactly right. That available low-cost electricity is the key element for enabling low-cost renewable hydrogen from electrolysis. And so the thing to think about is that as the grid becomes greener everywhere, whether you’re adding wind or whether you’re adding solar or whether you’re adding hydro or anything else that’s renewable, it tends to be very cyclical, either on a daily cycle or on a monthly cycle or sometimes on a seasonal cycle.

And as a result, there ends up being a need for addressing excess capacity. In order to use renewables as your baseline, you need to have overcapacity for the days where the wind isn’t as strong, for example.

But on the days where it is very strong, you might have excess capacity, and hydrogen is an excellent user of that excess capacity. You can turn it into a transportation fuel or into hydrogen that can simply be stored for longer periods of time and then take that hydrogen, take it off the grid altogether and put it into fuel tanks. Or you can put it back into a turbine, back into a fuel cell and put it back onto the grid, sometimes as backup power and sometimes as peaker power, for example.

And that’s one of the real intriguing opportunities for the future of hydrogen: How will it interconnect between a greening electric grid with more and more renewables being driven onto those grids, and then the need for storage and excess capacity management and demand management on the grid, for example? Hydrogen becomes just one of the tools that the grid managers can use to manage demand and supply on their grid.

I’m glad that you brought storage up. How are we going to store all of this hydrogen?

We need to be thinking on a very, very large scale. It makes sense when you start doing things in the gigawatt-hours, in the tens of gigawatt-hours and hundreds of gigawatt-hours of storage.

But your question is absolutely key. How do you then store it? And there’s a couple of ways that you can store hydrogen. One is exactly the way we’re doing it today. You can liquefy it and store it in liquid tanks. And because you can liquefy it, you can take a huge amount of energy and store it in relatively small volumes, for example.

But one of the most economic ways to store huge amounts of hydrogen is actually in caverns. And we actually have a cavern that’s in a salt dome just east of Houston, Texas, for example, where we can store many gigawatt-hours of hydrogen energy in a cavern. We’re using it on our pipelines. So we’re not using it for grid storage. We’re using it for backup molecules for the pipeline. But exactly the same system could be used for backup grid power, for example. And there’s a lot of locations in the world, a lot of locations in the U.S., that have the potential for underground cavern storage in salt domes and in depleted natural gas wells.

A couple of weeks ago, Columbia University put out a paper about using the existing natural gas or the pipeline infrastructure to transport clean molecules. Can we really be putting the hydrogen in that existing infrastructure, or do we need to revamp it?

Safety is a big issue, but so is the overall viability of just simply being able to do it in existing pipelines, for example.

It’s more than just a yes-no answer, because there’s really two ways that people are thinking about the existing pipelines. One is just mix hydrogen in with the natural gas itself. So people are talking about 10% to 15% hydrogen, maybe 20%. The upper limit is, I think, still being determined. And the reason you would do that is simply to decarbonize natural gas. Everything that’s using natural gas today, whether that’s a burner or a turbine or commercial heating or residential heating, at those relatively low hydrogen concentrations, the burners aren’t affected. Safety isn’t affected. And what you’ve essentially done is provided a mechanism to decarbonize some of those pathways by those few percentages, for example.

But the bigger question is, then, what about displacing the natural gas entirely, putting 100% hydrogen into those pipelines? Well, they do have some concerns about things like pressures and compatibility with hydrogen. And you’ve got to do a pretty careful evaluation of the existing pipeline to determine whether that’s viable or not.

In most cases, you may find that the distribution networks, what actually runs into individual houses or industries on a local basis, may not be particularly compatible, but some of those larger interstate pipelines might be viable. You might be able to either relocate, or they might already be made from materials that are compatible. So different parts of the natural gas infrastructure might be more compatible to a conversion to hydrogen, or they might be only suitable for a displacement of some part of the natural gas, depending on an evaluation of that specific infrastructure.

We’ve gone through the green hydrogen hype cycle before. Why is this time different?

The first generation of hydrogen, if you go back maybe 10 or 15 years ago, back to the one of the Bush administrations, for example, or the Schwarzenegger administration [in California] who were pushing the first hydrogen economy, as it was called at the time. The challenge then was that a lot of the technologies that would use the hydrogen were still in the technology development phase.

You couldn’t go into a Toyota auto dealer and buy a Mirai. You couldn’t go to a bus vendor and buy a hydrogen fuel-cell bus. They were still in the technology demonstration and development phase. Fuel cells have been around for a while. Those final products are not.

That’s very different now. If you think about the 10,000 cars that are on the road in California. If you were driving one of those, it is by all possible definitions a mainstream vehicle off of a production line, just like a Toyota Camry would be in the lane next to you. It is not a science experiment, and it’s not a demonstrator. It’s coming right out of the dealer just like any other vehicle and coming off of an assembly line with the same level of care and detail, for example. And so the fact that the vehicles are available, the applications are ready, and now they’ve been proven and the costs are coming in line, it means that now people can actually adopt it. So 15 years ago, if you wanted to adopt it, you would have difficulty doing it. There weren’t a lot of options available.

The other markets that we see really succeeding, the warehousing markets, for example, that really didn’t start to take off until after that first hydrogen economy. It was also in the demonstration phase. And so now we have two, three, four different markets that have products available. And that’s on the demand side.

But there’s also a lot of incentives from policymakers to encourage this energy transition, things like California’s [Low Carbon Fuel Standard] policy, which includes hydrogen, but also a lot of other fuels. It is making people really rethink the transportation fuel sector as a whole.

So it’s a combination of which you can actually adopt at scale. The technology is now proven, the economics are coming into play, and the regulatory environment under which we’re operating are all better aligned than they ever have been. And so all of those reasons are why you’re hearing so much about hydrogen. If you’re anything like me, your inbox is filling every day with all this hydrogen news. And the why behind it is because all of these pieces are starting to fit into place.

There were some big gaps in the past. There are no gaps now. We can go from where we are today to where we need to be in the future, I would like to say, without a technology breakthrough. There will be continued efficiency improvements and a lot of cost reduction. There isn’t a silver bullet that’s missing. We don’t need to solve problem X in order to get to the point to where we need to be in 20, 30 years.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

This story also appears in Energywire.