Hydrogen has pros and cons, but clean energy potential is there

It’s the most abundant element in the universe, making up about 75% of all matter, and it may hold the key to a future of abundant clean energy.

It’s also difficult to store in a pure state; corrodes and weakens metals; is expensive to isolate using existing processes; and it’s highly combustible — as in “burn up the airship Hindenburg on the landing dock in 1937” combustible.

Despite its drawbacks, hydrogen is a longer-term entrant in the “green energy” derby, which is being powered by the rising costs of fossil fuels, the push to decarbonize the Earth’s atmosphere, and the need for industry and governments worldwide to be free of despots who control much of the world’s oil.

The pros and cons of the “hydrogen revolution” was the topic of an Oct. 25 Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon in Madison, where the dean of the UW–Madison College of Engineering spoke frankly about the properties of this simple (one proton and one electron) yet powerful element.

People have been isolating and using hydrogen for centuries, but old-school processes churn out a lot of carbon dioxide, the chief climate-change culprit. The Holy Grail of many energy researchers today is to produce “green hydrogen” at a price that would rival production of “grey hydrogen” (the carbon-dirty stuff), to store it, to transport it, and to use it safely to power the world.

Green hydrogen is produced from fresh water by a process of electrolysis. It’s often used to make ammonia, which is easier to store and transport. It only earns the “green” label if it’s made from renewable electricity.

As Dean Ian Robertson explained, industries poised to be early adopters of green hydrogen produced in mass amounts are marine shipping; makers of heavy-duty trucks, construction, and mining vehicles; and those that use high-temperature process heating such as steelmaking, cement production, chemical production, agriculture, and aviation.

Sounds a little like Wisconsin, doesn’t it?

Hydrogen can also be used to fuel personal vehicles because, as he noted, “there isn’t enough lithium” in the world to make batteries to power electric cars for everyone.

That’s likely a down-the-road use for hydrogen, however, given there are only 45 publicly available hydrogen fueling stations in the United States — 43 of which are in California. But the potential is impressive: A tank of hydrogen can fuel a car at the gasoline equivalent of 70 miles per gallon, or 800-plus miles without refilling.

The lack of a public infrastructure is one reason why Robertson believes Europe and Asia are well ahead in hydrogen technology and its uses, but he also believes some recent federal incentives could help to close the gap.

One advantage is the existing industrial infrastructure to create, store, and ship ammonia, which contains nitrogen and hydrogen and is routinely found in fertilizers. “Green ammonia” (NH3) is created with an added step after hydrogen is isolated through electrolysis. Nitrogen particles from the air are first separated, then combined with green hydrogen molecules to form the ammonia.

Ammonia is stable, full of energy, and half as dense as fossil fuels, which means it can be efficiently shipped to where it’s needed. It can then be “cracked” back into hydrogen and nitrogen.

So, if hydrogen is the “Swiss Army knife of decarbonization,” as Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently touted, what’s the holdup? Cost and technology for starters, Robertson said, but public acceptance and knowing how to safely work with it may be bigger impediments.

“We’re going to have to train the workforce how to handle it … we’re going to have to train all of us how to fill up our cars,” Robertson said.

In Wisconsin, some companies large and small are already working on commercializing hydrogen use in selected sectors. Startups Advanced Ionics and Radom Corp. are two examples. Other carbon-heavy industries in Wisconsin see competitive advantages in transitioning to hydrogen, if production costs come down and incentives are in place.

One major company with a Wisconsin presence, 3M, recently showcased a nano-structured powder that could cut electrolysis costs for hydrogen separation. The powder reduces the amount of iridium — an expensive metal that trades for $4,000 an ounce — needed for electrolysis.

Like some other promising energy technologies, the widespread use of hydrogen may be decades away. But with many possible uses in play, hydrogen dividends will come in time.

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