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What, Where, When, Why and How “Hydrogen”? – Acero Engineering

Acero Eng_Hydrogen

Full Disclosure: The author of this article (Mark Kuppe, CEO at Acero Engineering) is a die-hard Oil and Gas advocate especially for Oil and Gas extracted from the cleanest place on planet earth – Western Canada.  The author also loves mother earth and doesn’t feel that the passion for oil and gas extraction in Western Canada is at odds with a love for mother earth; in fact, the two are in synch…. but that’s a discussion for another day.

The Hydrogen Rage / Stage

Lately all the rage is “hydrogen”; hydrogen this, hydrogen that. Haven’t we seen this before? What are the real net benefits? Who cares, everyone is doing it; it’s clean; it’s abundant; “Have you got a problem with cleanliness in abundance? … who invited you to this party?”

Whoa.  Let’s pump the brakes. Dare I suggest simply taking inventory of the situation?

It seems like once again the stage is set for governments (and investment communities alike) to pile into the latest carbon neutral energy panacea without having paused to consider the pros, cons and ultimate goals.  Hydrogen is everywhere in the news and in the universe alike, it’s clean and it’s free.  What’s not to like about that?

This article briefly explores what the author feels has been provided too short a shrift: the “what, where, when, why” and “how” of hydrogen; the goal being not to disrespect hydrogen but rather to identify where it fits in the energy puzzle before charging pell-mell ahead.  By introducing this pause, perhaps we can calm the quick twitch impulses of those about to release investments, hopes, dreams and tax dollars (via concessions, discounts and public funding subsidies) into the latest craze.  Perhaps an overly ambitious hope might be to remind those purse string holders in fact, what it was that filled those purses in the first place; with ultimate hopes of perhaps adjusting investment to a more pragmatic balance between future possibilities and current cash cows.

Why “Hydrogen”?

Because it has a relatively high concentration of power and the only product of the energy depletion in the hydrogen fuel cell is water… that seems innocuous enough and certainly seems to satisfy the ‘net zero carbon’ pundits’ desires. But is it really “net zero”.  We’ve seen those claims before (think Solar or Wind, whose capital cost and installation footprint is anything but “net zero”).  Everyone knows that there are two sides to an equation; in this case, two sides to the energy liberation equation.  On one side of the equation – the “output” side – is a charged hydrogen cell that when depleted of its energy, emits clean, fun loving water.  On the other side of the energy equation – the “input” side, is the following:

How “Hydrogen”?

  • Hydrogen is not an energy source: it exists in numerous molecular structures all around us but does not exist as stable hydrogen in any sort of abundance on planet earth.
  • Hydrogen must be pulled out of other molecules – requiring energy to do this
  • Very basically, the two primary forms of hydrogen generation on planet earth are:
    1. Steam methane reforming – where, as the name suggests, hydrogen is liberated from the methane (CH4) molecule by introducing heat and pressure (via steam and partial combustion); the products being primarily hydrogen, carbon monoxide and some carbon dioxide
    2. Electrolysis – simply the introduction of direct current electricity to cause the otherwise non-spontaneous liberation of hydrogen from water; the products being primarily, hydrogen and oxygen

With the “why” and the “how” somewhat addressed now – at least on a high level –  let’s spend a moment on the “why not”.

Why Not “Hydrogen”?

  • Because it has a very wide explosive (or combustible) range – it will burn (or explode) from 4% to 75% concentration in air – yikes!
  • Because it is corrosive in steel pipelines
  • Because it permeates through plastic pipelines (molecules so tiny that they will pass right through)
  • Because it burns invisibly
  • Because it burns with a very high emission of noxious (asthmatic) nitrogen oxides (approximately 500% more than those produced by combustion of natural gas)
  • Because it takes an energy source to create hydrogen and there is an efficiency loss in doing so
  • Because in many cases, in addition to the energy efficiency loss, the conversion from one form of energy to the hydrogen form doesn’t even make sense.  Eg. Recently, primarily in Europe, there has been a push to take wind and/or solar power output and rather than tie it into the grid, convert that power to hydrogen, then transport that hydrogen in existing gas pipelines and either burn it (in a blend with natural gas) or use it in hydrogen fuel cells (after again, re-extracting it from the rest of the blended gas stream).  Huh?  Why not just tie the solar or wind power directly into the electrical grid – especially in areas where the grid is well developed and located near the power source!?

Where and When “Hydrogen”?

With all the above apparent hydrogen bashing, one would suspect that now would be the time for the final stroke.  As stated in the intro however, while the author does believe that Oil and Gas deserves more respect as the big brother and sister of hydrogen (or a better analogy would be the “uncle and aunt” since they’re not directly related), hydrogen does have a spot in the family or, back with the original metaphor), a spot in the puzzle.  Where though?

If the purpose of hydrogen development is to target net zero or (let’s be practical) lower emissions, then one should filter through the data and conclude something similar to the following:

The Basis:

1. Hydrogen is a means of storing high density energy; nothing more, nothing less

2. The final stage of hydrogen usage in battery form (not combustion), is very clean

3. Hydrogen is difficult to transport, dangerous and very combustible

The Goal:

1. Reduce the environmental footprint of energy usage (from the cradle to the grave)

If one agrees with the basis and the goal as stated above, then the niche targets become clear:

The Target Niche:

Focus on energy sources that naturally make sense for conversion into hydrogen; more specifically:

For Steam Methane Reforming

1. Energy sources where there is water (for steam), methane or other source host molecule in abundance, where true carbon capture can be taken advantage of (where hydrogen can be liberated with no consequential aspect of the equation that simply front-end loads the carbon emission), preferably at locations where a grid or pipeline infrastructure exists.

At this juncture, a neon sign screams: Existing SAGD Operations (where carbon sequestration may practically be employed).  Say what? Haven’t the environmentalists told everyone on planet earth that the existing SAGD facilities in Canada are blights on mother earth? How’s that for an ironic twist. These locations show the most promise as the closest thing to an Oil and Gas loving, tree-hugging environmentalist’s shared dream where energy source, conversion methods and materials, conveyance infrastructure and carbon disposal are all in harmonious coexistence.

For Electrolysis

2. Where a power source exists in the absence of a grid – (because again, if a grid exists, then why lose power to convert from one form of power to another?)

3. Hydrogen fuel storage, transport and cell technology improvements – including high density molecular storage where the process of high density hydrogen removal and replenishment can be done repeatedly – some promising areas exist such as, for example, “ammonia borane” hydrogen storage

4. Hydrogen fuel cell economics and societal introduction – similar to other tectonic shifts, until the technology becomes ubiquitous, it will be difficult and impractical to force this development (think cell phones or electric cars); these things take time and bugs need to be worked out – while this point is less of an investment than it is a natural progression, investment to help with this progression (when / where it makes sense) may prove somewhat fruitful

5. Notably not on this list – hydrogen to be burned – why trade one issue (carbon generation) for other myriad issues: explosiveness, flammability, leakage, and asthmatic noxious NOx generation, etc.

Despite the challenges and significant cons associated with hydrogen development as an energy storage medium, there are target niches associated with its development that may ultimately prove beneficial and help society introduce one more piece into the energy solution puzzle. Investment should be measured and targeted because hydrogen’s unloved extended family deserves arguably even more attention. More on that topic in future episodes of “What”, “Where”, “When”, “Why” and “How”.

Thanks for reading.

Learn more about Acero Engineering


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