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Article | Energy Systems Division

Hydrogen at Scale

Meeting Society’s Future Energy Needs Utilizing Hydrogen on a Wide Scale

Hydrogen is a valuable industrial commodity with tremendous potential to help stabilize the electric grid, decrease our dependency on energy imports, and decrease our carbon footprint across the transportation, power generation, and industrial sectors. 

In the U.S. alone, 10 million metric tons of hydrogen are now being produced each year. Most of it is made by reforming of natural gas, but hydrogen can also be produced by splitting water molecules using electrical, thermal, and/or solar energy. Whereas batteries can provide short-term energy storage for the grid, hydrogen would be used for long-term gigawatt-scale storage.  Through such a hydrogen network, carbon-free, renewable inputs can be used to service all of society’s energy needs.

While the primary uses for hydrogen are in oil refining and ammonia industries today, other industrial and fuel applications are fast emerging. In transportation, it can be used directly as a fuel in fuel cells, reacted with CO2 to create synthetic fuels, or used to upgrade crude oil or bio-based oils. New markets for hydrogen as a fuel are opening up for fuel cell vehicles (cars, buses, trucks, and trains) and fuel cells used in stationary power generation, emergency backup power, and building heating. In the industrial sector, it can be reacted with N2 to produce ammonia, used to overhaul metal refining processes, or dedicated to other end uses.  The industrial uses are also growing in metals refining and synthetic fuel production.

Argonne National Laboratory is one of several national laboratories helping to turn this potential into reality by leading the development of affordable technologies for hydrogen production and end use applications. This cross-disciplinary effort is spread across multiple Argonne divisions, bringing vast research expertise capabilities.

Recognizing the enormous potential for hydrogen in U.S. transportation, power generation and industrial applications, the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE-EERE) has launched the Hydrogen at Scale (H2@Scale) initiative, in which Argonne is a proud partner.

Figure 1. H2@Scale Energy System

H2@Scale connects low carbon energy sources to all the energy sectors, and is depicted in Figure 1. Nuclear, fossil, wind, and solar can either supply energy to the grid or produce hydrogen.  The hydrogen can be converted back to grid electrons through either fuel cells or combustion turbines.  It can also be stored for use as a source of thermal energy via a hydrogen or natural gas infrastructure. 

The H2@Scale initiative is really a program focused on storing excess energy produced on the grid in the chemical bonds of hydrogen and then using that hydrogen for power generation, as a transportation fuel, or as a feedstock for the production of chemicals and materials,” says Theodore Krause, Argonne’s program manager for the DOE Fuel Cell Technologies Office. In essence, H2@Scale is really a vision of a hydrogen economy where hydrogen serves as a major energy source across multiple sectors of our economy.”

Argonne assisted DOE-EERE in hosting the H2@Scale R&D Consortium Kick-off Meeting August 2018 in Chicago for national laboratories and industrial partners. The objectives of the meeting were to identify opportunities for hydrogen in the transportation, industrial, and power generation sectors, as well as to foster collaborations with industry, academia, and national laboratory stakeholders to advance H2@ Scale both nationally and regionally.

Argonne’s energy system analyst, Amgad Elgowainy, notes that his application of techno-economic and environmental life-cycle analysis models as part of a hydrogen demand analysis demonstrates viability.” His calculations indicate potential hydrogen demand of more than 30 million metric tons by 2050.  They also indicate that, by increasing adoption of renewable energy using hydrogen for energy storage, U.S. carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 50% by 2050.

According to Krause, one of the biggest challenges facing H2@Scale, is that While hydrogen has the potential to change our energy infrastructure and provide benefits across the economy, the current cost of hydrogen production and delivery is prohibitive to wide-scale adoption in many applications.”  Argonne is also a leader in research to lower these costs. The ultimate goal, says Krause, is to demonstrate the tremendous value that hydrogen can provide to the U.S. economy. 

New technology development is a path to reduce costs. Elgowainy has developed patented methods to remove obstacles in the nascent market for fuel cell electric vehicles, including easier and cheaper refueling algorithms for these vehicles. The approach can save money because it can either reduce the capital investment for building new refueling stations, or double the capacity utilization of existing equipment at hydrogen refueling stations. 

Additionally, in conjunction with other national laboratories, Argonne chemist Deborah Myers is developing fuel cells that can operate as an electrolyzer— taking electrical power from the grid to produce hydrogen via electrolysis of water—and then as a fuel cell utilizing the hydrogen to produce electrical power that can be returned to the grid as needed. Argonne chemists Vojislav Stamenkovic and Di-Jia Liu are working on new catalysts—for use in electrolyzers—that improve their performance and lower their cost by reducing or eliminating the use of precious metals.

The pathway is emerging for a broad use of hydrogen with renewable inputs, which can lead to a carbon-free energy supply.