Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is also an attractive form of renewable energy that could play a significant role in resolving the climate crisis. But before it can become a key part of the next-generation energy technology portfolio, it needs to be easier to produce and less expensive. Here are eight ways the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory is helping achieve those goals:
1. Producing clean, less expensive hydrogen
Today, clean hydrogen is produced by water electrolysis, which converts water to hydrogen using electricity from renewables and nuclear energy. This process costs about $5 per kilogram (kg). DOE’s Hydrogen EarthShot (or Hydrogen Shot) seeks to reduce the cost of producing clean hydrogen by 80% — to $1 per 1 kg — in a decade. Argonne has undertaken a multifaceted approach to achieving this target. It will require a fundamental understanding of how molecular and electronic structure influences hydrogen production using only clean and sustainable energy inputs and materials in the earth that are abundant. This is a key mission of Argonne-based programs in sunlight-driven hydrogen production from water, which are supported by DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES), as highlighted in a recent BES roundtable meeting on Foundational Science for Carbon-Neutral Hydrogen Technologies. For electrolysis, electrolyzers (the equipment that converts water to hydrogen) will be required with higher efficiencies, greater durability and lower manufacturing cost than today’s electrolyzers. Argonne researchers are working with their counterparts at other national labs as part of the Hydrogen from Next-Generation Electrolyzers of Water (H2NEW) consortium, funded by the DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office (HFTO). The objective is to improve the performance and durability of electrolyzers, reduce the cost of producing clean hydrogen and achieve the Hydrogen Shot goal.
2. Making fuel cells and electrolyzers more affordable
Fuel cells use hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity for transportation and other energy applications. Both fuel cells and electrolyzers require catalysts made of rare and expensive metals, such as platinum for fuel cells and iridium for electrolyzers. These catalysts drive up the cost of these technologies. Argonne co-leads HFTO’s Electrocatalysis (ElectroCat) consortium. Its goal is to develop catalysts for both fuel cells and electrolyzers that use abundant, less-costly metals such as iron, cobalt and nickel.
3. Electrifying heavy-duty vehicles that are hard to decarbonize
Trucks, trains, ships, planes and off-road and other heavy-duty transportation vehicles account for about 15% of all the carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. Decarbonizing these modes of transportation by replacing internal combustion engines with hydrogen-fueled fuel cells offers a way to reduce, if not eliminate, carbon dioxide emissions in the transportation industry. Argonne is conducting studies that compare hydrogen-fueled fuel cells for these heavy-duty vehicles to their fossil-fueled internal combustion engine counterparts. The objective is to identify opportunities for improving the performance, durability and cost for such heavy fuel cell vehicles. Further, Argonne scientists and engineers are working with their counterparts at other national labs as part of HFTO’s Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck (M2FCT) consortium to improve the efficiency, durability and cost of such fuel cell systems.
4. Addressing climate change with hydrogen and fuel cell technologies
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions to address climate change is one of the key drivers for deploying hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. Today, the U.S. produces about 10 million tons of hydrogen annually, mostly for use in petroleum refining and ammonia production, with more than 95% of it produced by the steam reforming of natural gas, which uses high temperature and steam to convert natural gas into hydrogen. Producing hydrogen by steam reforming generates about eight pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of hydrogen produced according to Argonne’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Technologies Model (GREET), although those emissions can be mitigated through carbon capture and storage technologies. New technologies are emerging for producing clean hydrogen from a wide variety of sources, each with its own carbon footprint. What’s more, new applications are emerging to use hydrogen for fueling cars, trucks, trains, and other vehicles as well as in the manufacturing of steel and chemicals and the production of fuels from carbon dioxide. Quantifying the carbon footprint of new methods for producing and using hydrogen is critical for evaluating their impact on addressing climate change. Argonne researchers evaluate the carbon footprint over the lifecycle of a method using GREET to evaluate the different hydrogen production pathways for decarbonization of the U.S. economy.
5. Developing the roadmap for hydrogen
As the cost of producing clean hydrogen decreases and new technologies for using hydrogen emerge, the demand for hydrogen will increase. Understanding where the demand will develop, where the production of hydrogen will occur, and how to transport hydrogen from the producer to the user is critical. Argonne researchers along with their counterparts at the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory are developing both national and regional roadmaps to answer these questions. The roadmap will serve as a guide to both the public and private sectors to accelerate the advancement and deployment of hydrogen technologies toward decarbonizing our economy.
6. Developing a hydrogen ecosystem in the Midwest
The Midwest can produce hydrogen from clean, low-carbon sources such as nuclear energy, biomass and by-product hydrogen sources. The region can also use hydrogen in its transportation sector, petroleum refineries and industries such as steel mills. Argonne has been working with stakeholders including with DOE and universities to enable a Midwest hydrogen partnership for regional production and utilization of hydrogen with adequate infrastructure for hydrogen production, distribution and refueling. Argonne has also been facilitating industry and government interactions in the Chicago area and in the Midwest states to build a regional hydrogen economy. For example, the Midwestern Hydrogen Partnership, launched by Argonne and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a collaboration between industrial, academic and research institutions, government and other interested stakeholders. This partnership is working cooperatively to enable the Midwest to address the challenges, barriers and opportunities that can enable a prosperous hydrogen economy.
7. Exploring hydrogen production using nuclear energy
During periods of low demand, nuclear energy can generate carbon dioxide-free electricity to make clean hydrogen via water electrolysis. Argonne is working with Exelon, Nel Hydrogen, and DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to explore how clean hydrogen produced with nuclear energy can enhance the value of nuclear power plants while helping to decarbonize other industries. Argonne helps to identify potential hydrogen markets, determine breakeven nuclear hydrogen costs and identify opportunities for the production and use of nuclear hydrogen.
8. Lowering costs of hydrogen at the pump
Hydrogen-fueled cars powered by fuel cells are being deployed in California. Today, the cost of hydrogen at the pump in California is about three times that of gasoline on an equivalent energy basis. Argonne is helping to make hydrogen cheaper at the refueling station by developing new hydrogen station designs that lower the cost and increase the efficiency of dispensing hydrogen. Such stations will lead to lower hydrogen costs paid by customers for fuel cell vehicles. Argonne’s new designs have been licensed by PDC Machines, a global compressor manufacturer for new station construction.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.