Energy

Report slams "blue hydrogen" as worse for the climate than gas or coal

Report slams "blue hydrogen" a...
Shell's Quest project in Alberta, Canada, captures and sequesters carbon dioxide emissions from production of "blue hydrogen"
Shell's Quest project in Alberta, Canada, captures and sequesters carbon dioxide emissions from production of "blue hydrogen"
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Shell's Quest project in Alberta, Canada, captures and sequesters carbon dioxide emissions from production of "blue hydrogen"
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Shell's Quest project in Alberta, Canada, captures and sequesters carbon dioxide emissions from production of "blue hydrogen"
The Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has the first large-scale carbon capture facility in operation, capturing emissions from two steam methane reformers used to produce hydrogen
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The Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has the first large-scale carbon capture facility in operation, capturing emissions from two steam methane reformers used to produce hydrogen

The hydrogen industry is gearing up to play an important role in the global transition to clean energy – particularly in hard-to-abate sectors like aviation and steel production. As it grows, you're going to start hearing more about colors. Black hydrogen is produced through coal gasification. Grey comes from reforming natural gas. Brown is made by partially oxidizing lignite, or brown coal, under high pressure. Currently, 96 percent of H2 production falls under these dirty categories.

Green, of course, is hydrogen produced from clean, renewable sources, typically through electrolysis. That's the ultimate goal here, but the economics are not currently favorable. As in many areas, the dirty stuff is cheaper. Green hydrogen will eventually reach and even beat cost parity, but that's going to take a lot of time and investment.

During that time, one "lower emissions" alternative being proffered is "blue hydrogen." This is grey hydrogen produced through steam reforming of methane, but with an extra step of carbon capture and storage added to suck up emissions from the reforming stage.

A relatively new concept, it's currently only being produced at two facilities at commercial scale: a Shell factory in Canada and another in Texas operated by Air Products.

But a new report from researchers at Cornell and Stanford Universities warns that blue hydrogen is a terrible intermediate step, with hidden "fugitive emissions" involved that make it actively worse for the atmosphere in certain applications than legacy options like burning coal.

The Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has the first large-scale carbon capture facility in operation, capturing emissions from two steam methane reformers used to produce hydrogen
The Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has the first large-scale carbon capture facility in operation, capturing emissions from two steam methane reformers used to produce hydrogen

Speaking specifically about using hydrogen to create heat – such as in home heating, cooking or when burned in power generators originally designed to run on natural gas, the report states in no uncertain terms, "Perhaps surprisingly, the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60 percent greater than burning diesel oil for heat, again with our default assumptions."

When natural gas is extracted from the earth, quite a lot of it escapes as "fugitive emissions." This report assumes a 3.5 percent methane leakage rate, that will stay in the the atmosphere for 20 years.

When talking about climate change, you'll mainly hear carbon dioxide nominated as the chief culprit, but methane is much, much worse. A ton of methane, states the report, has the instant warming effect of 100 tons of CO2. Over a 20-year time frame, that effect is slightly reduced, but it's still 86 times worse than carbon dioxide.

This report claims to be the "first effort in a peer-reviewed paper to examine the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of blue hydrogen accounting for emissions of both carbon dioxide and unburned fugitive methane."

The main problem with blue hydrogen, then, is that the carbon capture process requires power, and that power is produced using natural gas. So even when all the emissions from the reforming process are captured to make blue hydrogen, the extra methane leakage involved cancels out all but nine to 12 percent of any environmental advantage.

And it gets worse. "Our analysis," reads the report's abstract, "assumes that captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely, an optimistic and unproven assumption. Even if true though, the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds."

The takeaway here: green hydrogen has much to offer in hard-to-abate emissions sectors, and will certainly play a part in the shift to clean energy. But blue hydrogen does not appear to be an acceptable transition step in the race to zero.

The research is published in the journal Energy Science and Engineering.

13 comments
13 comments
Lowell
Loz Blain gave us an article about the extraction of lithium and Hydrogen from Seawater. The source was KAUST Discovery. This tech doesn't sound that hard to put together and it certainly pays for the extraction process.
Loz said "So, a machine that can pull battery-grade lithium out of the ocean for a negligible electricity cost that's more than offset by the hydrogen and chlorine gases that are produced in the process – and it pumps out desalinated freshwater too? Shut up and take my investment money, right? "

Green Hydrogen is not that far away. I have been paying attention to the news from Loz Blain.

David
If we wait, it would be like saying 70 years ago that car engines are too polluting, so let's wait until we have low-sulphur, low-lead fuels, fuel injection and catalytic converters. Is it is sensible that we wait until green hydrogen is available in useful quantities before building a nationwide infrastructure, that it would not be better to work with a less desirable option in order to get the necessary storage and other facilities in place first while green hydrogen tech is still being developed?
piperTom
The argument stated here against blue hydrogen, would also apply to ALL uses of natural gas. So... the massive shift we have had from coal to methane for electricity is a regression?
Daniel Boguszewski
nuclear power is the future.
ScienceFan
Nearly all green hydrogen requires additional power from grids with still gas and coal generation. Since renewables cannot provide an extra demand all that green hydrogen results in additional fossil power. At 50 kWh per kg h2 that is at least 20kg of CO2. To replace 9kg of CO2 for a kg of grey hydrogen or 1 kg of CO2 for blue hydrogen. Though peer reviewed this article is manipulating. 3.5% methane leak might be the norm for careless US operators but other more responsible gas field operators manage 0.2%. Then this whole paper is blatantly wrong.
physics314
The source article analyzes a process that is by definition NOT considered blue hydrogen, else CO2 emissions would be exactly zero. It also uses an unrealistic numbers for fugitive emissions, far higher than the scientific community consensus. All of this is in line with Jacobson's well-documented crusade against anything not electric.
Lowell
Prior to 70 years ago, we had electric cars. We were at a turning point and fossil fuels pushed us away from electric cars. We are at another turning point now, with green hydrogen vs. blue hydrogen. Fossil fuels will do their darnedest to steer us to fossil fuels for blue hydrogen.
Douglas Rogers
While it is worthwhile to lower our carbon footprint, we must realize that industrial carbon accounts for 1% of the global greenhouse effect, with 95% being water vapor!
Karmudjun
Loz - great article. Thank you.
Clearly Blue Hydrogen isn't being thought of as an end-point on the spectrum of alternative energy sources. I don't understand why Shell & China are pursuing it. Is it proof-of-concept? Are they planning on scrubbing and capturing all the methane produced? Do they think that we who know that methane is 86x the greenhouse gas that CO2 is will just turn our heads and ignore the consequences of the process? The source article - as does Loz - states very clearly the increased greenhouse gas impact of "Blue Hydrogen". It should be called "Blue Balls Hydrogen" but the impact will last the globe a lot longer than the reference ever lasted for any male!
WB
Hydrogen is a fool's errand... Elon Musk recognized that years ago and half of humanity first has to spend trillions on this, before they realize they can't defeat physics.
You can all it green or bio or pink purple or yellow - Hydrogen still is a fool's errand for so many reasons... half as efficient as batteries, really tough gas to control, highly explosive, no scent, clear flame, it simply is the wrong approach.
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