The Hydrogen Revolution

By Paul Rodden, GIS Program Lead, WSB

Hydrogen has long been utilized in niche industries as a feedstock for fertilizers and to aid Oil and Gas companies in processing hydrocarbons. Several times throughout history, hydrogen supporters have attempted to push the element into the mainstream as a clean energy source. But these attempts have failed due to a few factors that, until recently, have held hydrogen back as a legitimate fuel. 

Separating hydrogen

These restrictions have revolved around the fact that hydrogen loves to bond tightly to other elements like oxygen and carbon. It is also the smallest atom in nature and can leak through most materials. The first restriction of its bonding ability means that striping hydrogen from other elements has been extremely costly and intensive. The process to separate hydrogen from oxygen is called electrolysis and requires clean water and a massive amount of energy to generate hydrogen in bulk. The process to separate hydrogen from carbon, which has historically been the accepted way to generate the fuel, uses natural gas as the feedstock, separates the hydrogen from the carbon, and releases the carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere. The obvious drawback to this is the release of the greenhouse gas (GHG) in large quantities. 

Why is this revolution different?

What makes this push to establish hydrogen as the fuel of choice for the energy transition more likely to develop then the half dozen times previously? Well, that’s the big difference. The energy transition movement is sweeping the globe and forcing every nation to establish carbon neutrality goals. The associated costs and risks of leveraging hydrogen as the energy transition fuel of choice seems highly likely depending on several factors. There are massive government subsidies that will aid hydrogen development costs and technical developments. These subsidies and developments will reduce the cost of materials and will lower the risks involved with large scale hydrogen energy development.

What technologies develop hydrogen?

There are many factors to consider when exploring the best way to develop hydrogen. What are the costs involved and what technology makes the most sense to invest in? Most people in the hydrogen industry discuss the different processes in terms of colors. Green is hydrogen generated from water using renewable energy (Wind, Solar, Geothermal, etc.) to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This process relies on electrolysis using either a proton exchange membrane (PEM) or alkaline electrolysis. On the surface, this is a very clean method of making hydrogen but also the most expensive, and depending on the study one references, not nearly as clean as the industry would like everyone to believe. The other largely referenced color is blue. This is same technology referenced earlier that converts natural gas into hydrogen. What makes blue different is the addition of capturing the CO2 and either utilizing it in other industries or sequestering the GHG underground. This technology, called steam methane reforming (SMR) with carbon capture (CCUS), has much lower associated development costs but still has the stigma of utilizing hydrocarbons as its feedstock and the associated costs of capturing carbon. 

Outside of the two main avenues of creating hydrogen are a handful of technologies that are quickly gaining in popularity. The first, is new tech called methane pyrolysis. This technology uses natural gas as its feedstock to create hydrogen but unlike SMR, this method (dubbed turquoise hydrogen) has no CO2 byproduct but rather solid carbon.  This technology uses a carbon negative process to generate the hydrogen. Other technologies include in-situ combustion, plasma gasification, and photocatalysis. All of these have amazing upside potential and distinct advantages over both blue and green hydrogen.

What’s leading the hydrogen revolution?

Another key element leading the hydrogen revolution is the incredible surge in development for hydrogen fuel cells. The hydrogen fuel cell industry is one of the globe’s fastest growing markets and is the main target of hydrogen investment funds. Fuel cells have distinct advantages over traditional battery technology and internal combustion engines. Since hydrogen is so small and light and is the most energy dense (per unit mass) fuel on earth, it can be densely compressed to provide electricity through the fuel cell in a more efficient manner and takes up less space while doing so. This makes fuel cells the ideal solution for carbon free long-haul trucking and shipping

With the technological advantages coming to light almost daily, new utilization methods getting deployed, and nearly all governments developing (or already developed) hydrogen strategies and roadmaps, this revolution looks to stay.

Paul Rodden has nearly 19 years in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), data management, and business development primarily focused on the oil and gas industry. In April of 2020 he worked alongside Exxon’s hydrogen team to develop the world’s first commercial hydrogen dataset. During the development cycle of the dataset, Paul gained unique insights into the hydrogen market and its rise as the energy transition leader.

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