Liquid hydrogen is a clean-burning alternative to more conventional fuels — like diesel and gas — that could be a potential sustainable alternative for cars, boats, planes and similar vehicles.
Adoption of hydrogen fuel has been limited, however, because liquid hydrogen remains challenging to produce. The most common method of hydrogen production requires the use of natural gas, a fossil fuel. Other approaches, like hydrogen electrolysis, require so much energy they may render production too costly.
GenHydro, a central Pennsylvania-based hydrogen startup, is looking to change this. The company’s new hydrogen manufacturing method uses a chemical reaction, rather than electricity or natural gas, to generate hydrogen.
The technology could provide a new approach for hydrogen manufacturing methods — helping to make sustainable hydrogen fuel much more practical.
The Current Approaches to Hydrogen Manufacturing
Around 95% of all the hydrogen manufactured globally is made using the steam methane reforming (SMR) process. With this process, steam reacts with methane or another natural gas at extremely high temperatures to produce hydrogen. However, the process also generates some carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
While some researchers have suggested that manufacturers capture and store this CO2 at the point of production, it will often be vented and escape into the atmosphere.
The reaction is also endothermic, meaning that heat has to be applied to make it work. Heat means energy, which means drawing power from the grid.
SMR hydrogen doesn’t have much of a carbon footprint compared to fossil fuels, but it isn’t exactly green. According to one estimate, every kilowatt-hour of energy from hydrogen will produce about 0.28 kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
Other methods for producing hydrogen exist, but they’re either too experimental or have other drawbacks. The electrolysis of water, for example, uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. However, this method is typically more expensive than the SMR process due to how much energy manufacturers need to apply to make the water split.
The process also requires a great deal of purified water. New power sector solutions are making pure water easier to generate, but water can still be a cost barrier when needed in large quantities.
GenHydro’s Reactant Hydrogen Manufacturing
The GenHydro approach avoids the use of electricity by applying a chemical reaction-based process to generate hydrogen.
The industrial-scale version of the reactor will be able to produce 25kg of hydrogen in an hour.
The approach can generate hydrogen from pure water, saltwater “or even wastewater,” allowing it to function even when clean water may not be available.
The company says its process does this all at the same price of SMR.
The GenHydro reaction is also exothermic, meaning that it supplies its own heat, unlike SMR. This means that the company can capture heat produced by the reaction to generate power that may be sold back to the grid. This can help drive down manufacturing costs even further — helping to make hydrogen fuel much cheaper and much more practical.
What a Green Hydrogen Manufacturing Method Could Mean
Most top environmental nonprofits are concerned with the impact of fossil fuels on the environment in one way or another. Hydrogen could be a vital component of the world’s transition away from fossil fuels and towards energy sources that help protect the environment.
While some vehicles can rely on electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries — like electric vehicles — others need fuel to provide power over long journeys.
Planes and cargo ships, for example, will probably need some type of fuel well into the future. Hydrogen, which produces no emissions when burned, provides an alternative to conventional fuels, like marine gas oil and aviation fuel.
So long as its production process produces no emissions, hydrogen could be a completely green replacement for existing fuel sources.
Shipping currently produces around 3% of global CO2 emissions, and some scientists have projected that figure could grow to as much as 17% by 2050. Hydrogen fuel could allow these industries to reduce significantly or possibly eliminate these emissions.
As the world pivots away from fossil fuels, alternatives like hydrogen fuel could help to ensure a smooth transition — providing an energy source that is energy-dense, works similarly to conventional fuels and produces no emissions.
Jane writes on green technology and renewable energy topics and works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co.