As a potential fuel source, hydrogen looks like a winner. It produces zero emissions beyond water vapor, and there’s a nearly limitless supply of it.
Advocates of hydrogen energy have argued these points for decades. Yet the element has made practically no headway in replacing fossil fuels.
But thanks to advancements in technology and the availability of affordable wind and solar power, hydrogen as a fuel of the future could now be closer to reality.
And Texas, with its sprawling petrochemical industry, powerhouse energy companies and numerous research institutions, could lead the way in hydrogen adoption, experts say.
“In the last couple of years, and particularly last year, I’ve seen the greatest interest I’ve seen in hydrogen for two decades,” said Alan Lloyd, a senior research fellow at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. “Why is that? I think the major reason is the recognition from major companies now that if they’re going to do something about looking at a sustainable energy transition, if they are going to take climate change for real, they’ve got to look at de-carbonization.”
In a hydrogen-powered world, fuel cells, which NASA has used on space ships since the 1960s, would replace the traditional internal combustion engine sitting in your car today.
When you push hydrogen and air into opposite sides of a car’s fuel cell, the two chemically react to produce electricity, water vapor and small amounts of heat. The electricity flows from the fuel cell to power the vehicle’s electric motor, and from your car’s tailpipe flows out a trickle of water, instead of toxic fumes.
Lloyd and other researchers at the UT Austin have been studying the viability of hydrogen use in vehicles. One team of students at the Center for Electromechanics in 2018 retrofitted a UPS delivery van with a hydrogen fuel cell system as part of a Deptment of Energy-sponsored program.
As of late 2019, there were just over 11,000 hydrogen vehicles on the roads, mostly in Japan and California, according to the International Energy Agency.
But the high cost and a lack of infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles remain the biggest obstacles to widespread use of hydrogen as an energy source.
Fuel cells are expensive to produce because they include materials such as platinum. The bigger challenge, however, is the cost of collecting pure hydrogen.
Many oil and gas companies today use hydrogen in industrial processes. Companies typically isolate hydrogen from other materials through a process called reforming, which combines steam with natural gas at high temperatures.
While the reforming process produces pure hydrogen that could be used in vehicles, it also requires using fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal, which can produce significant zero emissions.
About 95 percent of hydrogen produced in the U.S. currently is made through reforming, according to the Energy Department. Every year, global hydrogen production alone emits the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as all of the United Kingdom and Indonesia.
However, a process called electrolysis offers a promising path to producing clean, zero emissions or emission free hydrogen.
In electrolysis, a large amount of electricity passes through water, splitting the liquid and producing hydrogen and oxygen — separating the H from the O in H2O.
The problem with electrolysis has long been the costliness of the electricity needed throughout the process. Reforming, however, uses three to five times less electricity to produce hydrogen, according to the IEA.
But these days, electricity produced from wind turbines and solar panels is much cheaper than in years past. The challenge is storing that electricity when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Experts say that putting a hydrogen production facility near renewable energy sources — such as the wind or solar farms the populate parts of rural Texas — would provide both cheaper energy for electrolysis and a better means of energy storage.
Think of hydrogen like a battery storing energy from wind and solar arrays when the energy isn’t needed.
Hydrogen is known as an energy carrier. That means it’s a not a direct fuel source, like fossil fuels, but instead is great at storing energy for long periods of time.
You can turn electricity into hydrogen via electrolysis, and later turn hydrogen back into electricity — like in a vehicle using a fuel cell.
Cheaper electricity from renewable sources will mean hydrogen producers can use electrolysis on a large scale, instead of the greenhouse gas-emitting reforming process.
Meanwhile, hydrogen can also be used to store energy from those renewable sources to be used at a later time — like when the sun isn’t shining — or shipped to another country in need of an energy source.
“Another difference between hydrogen and electricity,” Lloyd said, “is you can ship hydrogen globally.”
The biggest obstacle, though, is cost.
“We haven’t been able to drive the cost down. It’s still a little too expensive,” said Robert Hebner, director of the Center of Electromechanics at UT Austin. “I see it very much like we saw solar panels maybe 15 years ago. It was a good idea, but a little too costly. Global research and development will drive down the cost significantly.”
Lloyd and Hebner said the state of Texas needs to invest in research and development now to speed up the transition to hydrogen.
The state is well-positioned given its large energy industry and petrochemical companies’ experience using hydrogen.
One study published in February by researchers in Munich, Germany, found that in Texas it’s already cost-effective to produce hydrogen from electricity compared with fossil fuel-based hydrogen production facilities.
It’s still cheaper to generate hydrogen through reforming, which emits greenhouse gases. Clean electric hydrogen production, however, “is projected to become competitive with industrial-scale supply within a decade if recent market trends continue and current policy support mechanisms are maintained,” the authors wrote.
Scientists like Lloyd are studying the viability of locating hydrogen production facilities near wind and solar farms to ensure hydrogen is produced with zero emissions.
“That’s where Texas is becoming very attractive as a place to create hydrogen,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes, you’ve got excess power, electricity. Rather than basically not using that, you can use that to create hydrogen, then use hydrogen by putting it through a fuel cell, or storing it for long-term use. So it’s very versatile.”
Beyond potentially becoming a transportation fuel, hydrogen “has a use right across the energy chain,” he said.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is one of the main acolytes of battery-powered vehicles who have expressed doubts about the viability of fuel cells. Producing hydrogen requires taking electricity from the sun or wind, using that power to create hydrogen and then more energy to compress it into a gas tank.
Critics say hydrogen fuel cells are costly and energy-intensive to produce. Also, battery-powered electric cars don’t need someone to build a network of refueling stations — you can plug your electric car in at home.
Between batteries and fuel cells, the latter is currently more promising for use in big, long-haul trucks. In order for an 18-wheeler to run entirely on batteries, they’d have to take up about one-third of its cargo space, Lloyd said.
Instead, the next generation of trucks that you pass on the highway could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells working in conjunction with batteries.
Hebner and Lloyd said Texas should collaborate with energy firms, automakers and researchers to develop a road map to lower-cost hydrogen energy.
Industry players need to simultaneously build out infrastructure for hydrogen cars — think roadside hydrogen fueling stations — while car companies invest in developing the vehicles.
It’s currently a chicken-and-egg situation, experts say.
There are a few dozen hydrogen fueling stations operating today, mostly in California and in northeastern states such as Connecticut.
Car companies are reluctant to invest in developing hydrogen cars when most customers won’t be able to drive them because of the scarcity of fueling stations. And energy companies don’t want to build fueling stations for cars that aren’t on the road.
The Department of Energy in February announced $64 million in funding for projects advancing the development of duel cells domestically, as well as projects to lower the cost of producing hydrogen.
“I think Texas is incredibly well-positioned to take advantage of the worldwide investment in the hydrogen technology, and create jobs here,” Hebner said. “We just don’t have that all together because we haven’t made a strong investment in hydrogen, as country or as a state.
In June, Germany announced an $8 billion investment into its clean hydrogen energy strategy. A move on a smaller scale could push Texas to the forefront of hydrogen energy adoption in the near future, Lloyd said.
“Texas is known for its energy now, and you’re refocusing some of that energy so you can get a vision of the future, a technological road map for job creation and de-carbonization of the energy sector,” he said. “These opportunities are real.”
the article is originally published at my san antonio.