Producing hydrogen is a pretty dirty business these days. But that’s changing as more companies look for ways to decarbonize the economy.
An approach that is gaining popularity is the application of renewable energy sources to centuries-old electrolysis to split hydrogen molecules – the most abundant element in the universe – from their bonds with oxygen.
An electrolyzer separates water into oxygen and hydrogen, effectively the opposite of a fuel cell that uses water and electricity to separate hydrogen and oxygen, leaving water vapor as the only emission. In an electrolyzer, electricity is used to force water through a stack. This pulls hydrogen and oxygen atoms apart.
The production of emission-free hydrogen entails unimagined amounts of federal and state subsidies. It bodes well for fuel cell electric vehicles. Especially long-haul trucks, which could go up to 1,000 miles on a single tank of liquid hydrogen. We’re not there yet, but the potential is greater than ever.
Companies rely on electrolysis
Businesses welcome the prospects. Cummins Inc.’s New Power business expects $3 billion in annual sales by 2030 from electrolyzers. Tier 1 automotive supplier Robert Bosch plans to invest up to $591 million in electrolyzer components by the end of the decade. The German manufacturers ThyssenKrupp and Siemens Energy already produce electrolysers.
Fuel cell electric trucks are expected to enter the US market in small numbers in the second half of the decade. Even in the more mature seven leading European markets, they will not match the total cost of ownership of diesel trucks before 2030, according to a study by the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
But electrolysers using renewable energy — sun and wind — along with generous incentives, could match the cost of steam methane reforming (SMR), which accounts for more than 95% of global hydrogen production.
SMR costs about $1.50 to produce one kilogram of hydrogen. With a production tax credit and low-cost electricity, the price of electrolysis could drop by about $5 per kilogram.
“We’re on the cusp of where we’re really going to see quite a bit of momentum, driven in part by the Infrastructure Act as well as the Inflation Mitigation Act,” said Alex Savelli, Cummins managing director/Americas for hydrogen technologies. “But as the industry works to scale, you will see that the cost is equal to or more competitive than gray hydrogen.”
Electrolysis was discovered in 1800, the same year Alessandro Volta invented the electric battery. Other chemists tried to connect their poles in a tank of water. They found that the current passed through the water, separating hydrogen and oxygen at the electrodes, according to Iberdrola Group, a global renewable energy developer.
Electrolysis requires a lot of electricity, so it is expensive. To contain costs, access to cheap electricity is required, such as For example, a store selling Nikola Corp. Dealt with the Arizona Public Service to buy solar power at 2 cents per kilowatt hour. The average price is twice as high, Savelli said.
A complete electrolyser system includes the stack, pumps, power electronics, a gas separator, and other components such as storage tanks.
Use of existing pipelines
Electrolysis is unlikely to replace SMR, in which natural gas and water vapor react at high temperatures to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen, known as gray hydrogen. But electrolysers that make green hydrogen from renewable energy sources could run in the same pipelines — up to a point.
“One of the things you can do is use the natural gas pipeline infrastructure,” Savelli said.
An admixture of up to 20% hydrogen is feasible. Anything more than that would require a pipeline repurposing, as corrosion occurs from the presence of too much hydrogen.
“I think there is a need for both technologies to be deployed in the future and see what happens,” said Salim Youssefzadeh, CEO of WattEV, who researched hydrogen production before deciding to build high-power battery electric infrastructure in California.
“Perhaps there are different areas where hydrogen would be more economical, be it in long-distance freight transport or in another area.
Cummins is all about it
Cummins’ work in electrolyzers received an additional boost with its September 2019 purchase of Canada’s Hydrogenics for $290 million.
“The main goal was access to fuel cell technology and PEM [proton exchange membrane] technology they had,” Savelli told FreightWaves. “They were also in the electrolyser business. But the most important thing for us were the fuel cells.”
Hydrogenics helped Cummins introduce fuel cell powered passenger trains with Alstom in Germany. But the prospects of producing green hydrogen align with the company’s Destination 2050 goal of achieving carbon neutrality in all of its products.
Hydrogen is used in refineries to remove sulfur from gasoline and in the chemical industry to produce fertilizers and ammonia. Volvo Construction Equipment uses hydrogen to produce fossil-free steel for its trucks.
Three types of electrolysers
Cummins manufactures three types of electrolyzers – alkaline, PEM and the nascent solid oxide electrolyzers. For trucking, PEM electrolysers make the most sense, Savelli said.
“One of the biggest things we’ve been able to do with some of our engines is increase power density because we’ve gone from mechanical fuel systems to electronic fuel systems,” he explained. “With PEM electrolysis, the power density that can be achieved with a smaller footprint is almost analogous.”
As a hydrogen producer, Cummins could deliver its hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine planned for 2027. It already counts two major installations – an Air Liquide facility in Quebec, Canada and a larger solar powered PEM operation in Juno Beach, Florida Florida Power & Light. The plant consists of five electrolysers that can produce 10.8 tons of hydrogen per day.
It is also expanding electrolyzer production at an existing facility in Minnesota.
“We want to be both on the production side of hydrogen and help people consume it,” Savelli said. “And the consumption would be either with fuel cells or with a hydrogen ICE engine.”
Manufacturers differ in approaches to producing hydrogen
Hydrogen production through electrolysers and other methods has been part of the business plan for startup electric truck maker Nikola from the start.
Volvo’s fuel cell joint venture with Daimler Truck, called Cellcentric, leaves hydrogen production to others.
“We don’t need to get into this field ourselves,” said Lars Stenqvist, Volvo Executive Vice President of Group Trucks Technology. “We don’t have that big of an opinion on electrolysers for making hydrogen.”
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