Simply put: hydrogen is a safe fuel.
According to the National Hydrogen Association (NHA), hydrogen has three main benefits (the three “E’s”): hydrogen will increase our energy security, improve our environment, and benefit the economy.
Hydrogen will ensure our energy security because it can be obtained from many domestic resources and can be clean and efficient. It will improve the environment locally by improving urban air quality since hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles emit only water vapor as a byproduct. It also can provide global benefits through carbon management.
It benefits the economy because the production and implementation of hydrogen systems and uses will also create jobs. It can be produced more cost effectively than current gasoline when compared on an energy output basis.
“With fuel cells, the benefits become even greater because fuel cells use energy very efficiently,” said Mike Holmes, deputy associate director of research at the Energy & Environmental Research Center and an NHA board member. “You can get 60-70 miles per kilogram of hydrogen, which is equivalent to a gallon of gasoline in terms of energy output.”
In a recent keynote address at the Fourth Annual Hydrogen Implementation Conference in Laramie, Wyo., the director of the U.S. Department of Energy Technology Laboratory, Carl Bauer, said that hydrogen is safe, it is flexible, it can be created from multiple sources, and it serves all energy applications, including electricity, heating and chemicals.
“We have a huge opportunity with hydrogen, but we just can’t step up to the plate fast enough,” Bauer said. “Hydrogen utilization expansion will occur in stages. Near-term production will be from natural gas and electrolysis. The midterm, which we are entering, will involve reforming and/or gasification of coal or biomass and solar and wind to hydrogen.”
EERC Director Gerald Groenewold, also a keynote presenter in Laramie, believes coal will be a major player in providing the necessary base-load hydrogen.
“Hydrogen is ready for deployment,” Groenewold said. “One of the most promising technologies for hydrogen is coal, initially and maybe in the longer term. Coal is the bridge to the hydrogen economy.”
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Coal can be a cornerstone for the diverse hydrogen supply mix, with integration of hydrogen production into co-production of power and synthetic fuels. The United States has more than 25 percent of the world’s coal reserves, with a supply that will last more than 250 years at the current mining rates. But hydrogen production is not new. About nine million tons of hydrogen is produced annually in the United States, mostly for fertilizers and hydrocracking petroleum.
About 12 percent more coal would need to be mined and converted to hydrogen to serve only a third of the entire transportation demand.
That’s why researchers at the EERC believe the world’s energy needs will be supplied from a variety of technologies, including coal, biomass, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear.
“We need to connect all the dots and integrate more energy technologies,” Groenewold said. “There can be synergy in the energy industry. We all have to work together to break down barriers between several energy enterprises.”
A major challenge right now for the utility industry today is the renewable energy standard and looming carbon dioxide issues, said Ray Hobbs, with the Arizona Public Service Commission.
Hobbs has worked with several corporate partners to create a completely integrated cogeneration facility using wind and coal to generate electricity, produce hydrogen, and utilize the carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct to grow algae, a biomass that can be used to create other constituents, such as liquid fuel.
The EERC is working on several similar projects and is poised to provide the technology needed to move forward. It has demonstrated the capability to produce a pure stream of hydrogen from lignite coal using commercial and near-commercial technologies. The EERC is not trying to re-invent the wheel, but it is working to improve the tires by producing efficient, reliable, clean and cost-effective technologies for hydrogen.