November 12, 2018

How clean is hydrogen?

So, is hydrogen clean? Just like electricity, the answer depends on how it's sourced.

An electric car running on electricity produced by a coal plant, for example, could be considered contributing carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is a lower emissions creator than gasoline, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, but the most common hydrogen production method does pollute. The method — called reforming — produces hydrogen gas by mixing natural gas with hot steam, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"Hydrogen produced from natural gas is pretty cheap in the U.S., but a lot of people recognize that getting hydrogen from natural gas and liberating a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere is not a good thing," said Steve Szymanski, director of business development at Wallingford-based Nel Hydrogen (formerly Proton OnSite).

However, hydrogen can be made cleaner, including by using solar-powered electrolysis equipment to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Nel make some of that equipment, while Air Liquide and FuelCell Energy are also experimenting with it.

Ole Hoefelmann, Americas vice president for Air Liquide's advanced business and technologies unit, said that technology is promising, but it needs to be scaled up to be cost competitive.

Environmentally conscious consumers are right to question the source of their energy, he said, but he noted that the Hydrogen Council — a global coalition of energy, transportation and industrial companies, including Air Liquide — has committed to completely decarbonizing hydrogen production by 2030.

If that goal is met, it would likely mean that hydrogen has a smaller emissions footprint than electricity in many states, including Connecticut, which has committed to 40 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

That could ultimately help boost demand for hydrogen vehicles.

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