A Hydrogen Future?

Some see momentum for ‘green’ fuel, but hurdles remain

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Spring issue of Diesel & Gas Turbine Worldwide magazine)

As more industries and market segments seek ways to cut carbon emissions, hydrogen, it seems, is having a moment.

Hydrogen, or more specifically hydrogen produced by renewable energy, is “currently enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum,” according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Current projects run the gamut from a hydrogen-fueled combined heat and power (CHP) plant in Germany to a first-ever hydrogen-powered passenger train in the US (see accompanying story).

Brian Gutknecht, strategic marketing leader at GE Power, helped lead a two-part webinar on hydrogen’s potential this spring. The event drew 3000 registrants. Jeff Goldmeer, director of gas turbine combustion & fuels solutions for GE Power, was one of the presenters.
“I would say that that on a regular basis we are seeing customer inquiries asking us about hydrogen,” Goldmeer told audience members. “And part of I think why we’re getting that question is, is there’s uncertainty in the future. I think we’re all trying to understand what the next generation of our energy ecosystem will look like.”

And industry analysts are bullish on hydrogen. Research firm BloombergNEF released “Hydrogen Economy Outlook” in March. The report argues clean hydrogen could be deployed in the decades to come to cut up to 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and industry – at what the firm said would be “manageable” costs.

“The real beauty of hydrogen is that it can play a role in reducing or eliminating emissions from almost all of those heavy-carbon industries, from making steel to making chemicals to providing high-temperature heat for industrial processes to powering heavy transport applications, to firing electricity generation,” said Kobad Bhavnagri, head of industrial decarbonization for BNEF and lead author of the report. Bhavnagri was interviewed before the report was released.


Currently, hydrogen is typically extracted from fossil fuels — usually natural gas. Indeed, natural gas accounts for around three-quarters of the annual global dedicated hydrogen production of around 70 million tons, according to the IEA. Renewable hydrogen can be made from water and renewable power through electrolysis. This hydrogen can either be used directly or put through a second stage to produce methane, which can be used in standard gas applications. The CO₂ used in the methanation process is captured from the air, or from biomass or biogas, to ensure a closed carbon cycle.

“One of the nice things about hydrogen and hydrogen-related technologies like ammonia is that they have a lot of synergies with existing industries, which makes them easier to use,” Bhavnagri said. “For instance, you can have an internal combustion engine from MAN, for example, which can operate on traditional fuels and then be switched over to ammonia. Those things are really useful because they help to deal with these uncertainties and pave a smoother path and lower the costs of switching over and transitioning to hydrogen.”

And hydrogen isn’t some unknown, exotic fuel, Gutknecht said.

“While there is intense conversation about hydrogen across the industry as we look to the future, it’s not a new topic to GE,” Gutknecht said. “Gas turbines, whether operating today or in the future, can be upgraded to run on renewable fuels like hydrogen. In fact, GE has been investing and leading the industry in low BTU fuel capability for more than 30 years. GE gas turbines have more than 5 million operating hours across 70-plus sites using hydrogen and associated fuels.”

Operating challenges

But hydrogen has challenges — people remember the Hindenburg disaster for a reason. Some of hydrogen’s properties require additional engineering controls to ensure safety. The gas has a wide range of flammable concentrations in the air and lower ignition energy than gasoline or natural gas. Consequently, adequate ventilation and leak detection are important elements in the design of safe hydrogen systems. Because hydrogen burns with a nearly invisible flame, special flame detectors are also required.

Jacqueline O’Connor, director of the recently established Center for Gas Turbine Research, Education and Outreach at Penn State University, said she and her colleagues are looking at hydrogen and other alternative fuels in their research.

“Hydrogen is obviously on the industry’s mind,” said O’Connor, who is also an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the school. She said her lab is doing combustion research with hydrogen and looking at issues surrounding high hydrogen fuel compositions, which have higher burning temperatures. That leads to challenges with cooling, she said. Flame control is also an area of study.

“From a combustion standpoint, hydrogen is a sneaky little molecule,” O’Connor said. “It’s extremely diffusive and it burns really quickly. The fuel that we normally burn, natural gas, is mostly methane and methane is a very pokey fuel. It does not burn quickly. It does not ignite very easily. You really have to work it to get it burn. So you’ve sort of got both ends of the spectrum and especially if you want to burn blends of hydrogen and natural gas — it’s a really interesting combustion problem.”

Hydrogen can cause some metals to become brittle, so selecting appropriate materials is key and since it can escape more easily than other gases, seals need to be high quality. But it is used — safely— in a number of markets, from oil refining to the production of fertilizers.

“I don’t necessarily think of hydrogen as dangerous, in the perspective of we are already dealing with highly flammable gases, methane, LPG, et cetera,” GE’s Goldmeer said. “I think hydrogen poses some incremental challenges relative to methane. Again, it’s more flammable. So I think we have to be smarter and more careful about what we do in terms of our safety systems. But that being said, we’ve been working with hydrogen for decades.”

Shipping, storing and cost

According to the BloombergNEF report, storing and moving hydrogen is one of the largest roadblocks to wide adoption.

“For hydrogen to become as ubiquitous as natural gas today, a huge, coordinated program of infrastructure upgrades and construction would be needed,” the report states. “For instance, 3-4 times more storage infrastructure would need to be built at a cost of US$637 billion by 2050 to provide the same level of energy security as natural gas.”

So if hydrogen is flexible and green, what’s the catch? Cost, primarily. Along with a large investment in infrastructure, there would need to be disincentives to use carbon-based fuels.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen with current policy without serious intervention and change,” Bhavnagri said.

That would include change like carbon taxes. The study found that a carbon price of $50/tCO2 would be enough to switch from coal to clean hydrogen in steel-making by 2050, $60/tCO2 to use hydrogen for heat in cement production, $78/tCO2 for making chemicals like ammonia, and $145/tCO2 to power ships with clean fuel, if hydrogen costs reach $1/kg.

The BloombergNEF report also suggests that renewable hydrogen could be produced for $0.8 to $1.6/kg in most parts of the world before 2050. This is equivalent to gas priced at $6-12/MMBtu, making it competitive with current natural gas prices in Brazil, China, India, Germany and Scandinavia on an energy-equivalent basis. When including the cost of storage and pipeline infrastructure, the delivered cost of renewable hydrogen in China, India and Western Europe could fall to around $2/kg ($15/MMBtu) in 2030 and $1/kg ($7.4/MMBtu) in 2050.

Bhavnagri envisions green hydrogen taking hold in industrial clusters that already use hydrogen. That would allow for the green technology to begin scaling up, resulting in lower costs, which in turn would lead to more adoption of the technology. Much of the refining and chemical production that uses hydrogen based on fossil fuels is already concentrated in coastal industrial zones around the world, such as the North Sea in Europe, the Gulf Coast in North America and southeastern China. Encouraging these plants to shift to cleaner hydrogen production would drive down overall costs. These large sources of hydrogen supply can also fuel ships and trucks serving the ports and power other nearby industrial facilities like steel plants.

The IEA estimates the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity could fall 30% by 2030 as a result of declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production. Fuel cells, refueling equipment and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water) can all benefit from mass manufacturing.

“There’s been a lot of talk about hydrogen for cars and that’s where a lot of the industry focus has been, but hydrogen for transport and for cars, for trucks, it’s actually a pretty hard nut to crack,” Bhavnagri said “You’ve got all these infrastructure chicken and egg problems, you know, you have to have huge network of refueling stations before people have the confidence to buy a vehicle. T the auto makers are not going to make the vehicles until there’s a network of refueling stations. What comes first? Who’s going to pay for it and why would you do all of that when you’ve got battery electric vehicles, which don’t have those infrastructure problems, which are already on the cusp of getting cheaper than internal combustion engine vehicles.” Who said this?

Supplying an industrial cluster with hydrogen would mean building some large-scale infrastructure, but it would be significantly less complex than rolling out 100000 refueling station for vehicles, Bhavnagri said.

Political will

In a perfect world, Bhavnagri said it will be possible to produce hydrogen at low cost using wind and solar power, to store it underground for months, and then to pipe it on-demand to power everything from ships to steel mills. Hydrogen technology is established, that what it needs is refinement and the scale of the of infrastructure to grow. It can be done, but…

“Am I optimistic? I think the role that hydrogen can play is very promising. Am I optimistic that we can make it play that role? … Look, in some ways you have to be an optimist, otherwise it’s difficult to get out of bed, but the evidence is not there yet,” Bhavnagri said. “There’s a lot of interest and excitement and governments are making lots of noises … but they’ve not yet shown that they’re willing to put the hard policy in place that drives billions and billions of dollars of investments. They’re still sort of fiddling at the edges. They’re throwing piecemeal amounts of funding around…10 and 20 and maybe 100 million dollars here and there. That’s not going to create a trillion dollar industry — they’ve got to get serious.

“Like I said, this is closely linked to climate, to the issue of climate as a whole,” Bhavnagri said. “They’re not yet serious enough about climate. We are, we are sleep walking — with people shouting at us — into a catastrophe. And hydrogen is one of the suite of saviors which we are just sort of glossing over.”

Hydrogen Projects

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