Breaking Down Hydrogen Production Methods

Renewable Energy /
Breaking Down Hydrogen Production Methods

Hydrogen fuel represents an essential component of the transition to renewable energy.

Hydrogen has a virtually unlimited supply, offering the potential for near-endless generation and consumption. Harnessing hydrogen fuel will allow us to reach the net-zero emissions targets set to address climate change over the coming decades.

However, hydrogen’s place in sustainability conversations becomes slightly more complicated when considering its production. Today we’ll break down hydrogen production methods to better understand the path to net-zero emissions.

Producing Hydrogen as a Fuel

Before looking at various hydrogen production technologies, let’s review the chemical process involved and what makes hydrogen fuel so sustainable.

Hydrogen is abundant, but it’s normally found in water, its molecularly bonded form. This means chemical reactions and significant energy inputs are necessary to isolate hydrogen into its pure gas form.

Once produced, hydrogen can be substituted for natural gas or used in hydrogen fuel cell applications which convert the gas into electricity. The byproduct of this conversion is water vapor, which eliminates adverse emissions like greenhouse gasses (GHG).

The two most popular hydrogen production methods are thermochemical and electrolytic, but the latter is much more sustainable.

Chart: Hydrogen production methods

Thermochemical Hydrogen Production

Traditionally, the production of hydrogen relied on thermochemical processes, commonly via the consumption of fossil fuels. The two primary hydrogen production methods involving thermochemical processes are:

  • Steam methane reforming (SMR)
  • Coal gasification

Steam Methane Reforming (SMR)

Steam methane reforming, or natural gas reforming, accounts for 95% of today’s hydrogen production in the United States, known as “blue hydrogen.”

SMR steam-heats methane sourced from natural gas to temperatures between 700o-1000o C. When the two combine and are pressurized, the chemical reaction results in:

  • Hydrogen (H)
  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Then, steam is combined with carbon monoxide to produce more hydrogen and carbon dioxide via water-gas shift reaction. The final process, pressure-swing absorption, removes all elements aside from the hydrogen.

Of the hydrogen production methods involving fossil fuels, SMR is the most environmentally friendly. However, it still requires significant technologies and localized infrastructure to minimize carbon emissions. These hydrogen production technologies, known as carbon capture, reduce the emissions that escape into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, the potential release of methane throughout the process has much more damaging climate change effects than CO2. SMR also requires substantial energy (usually created by consuming fossil fuels) to heat water and make the necessary high-temperature steam.

Coal Gasification

The coal gasification method also creates hydrogen, CO, and CO2, but is achieved by heating coal until it creates a syngas ( a fuel-gas mixture). As the most polluting method of hydrogen production—releasing 10-12 tons of CO2 for every ton of hydrogen—the product of coal gasification is known as “brown hydrogen.”

Read The Colors of Hydrogen, Explained

Electrolytics

The electrolytic process represents the most sustainable hydrogen production method currently available to perform at scale. When this process is combined with renewable sources such as wind and solar energy, it is known as “green hydrogen” for its carbon-free operation.

As a result, electrolytics represent one of the most significant sustainability transformations we can make to our energy sector.

Electrolysis

Electrolysis splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen via electrical current. This process occurs within equipment known as an electrolyzer.

Because water and electrical current provide the only inputs, no carbon or other GHG emissions are released—only water vapor.

Fuel cells perform similar chemical processes to convert hydrogen gas into electricity without needing batteries.

Integration with Renewable Energy

For electrolysis to produce green hydrogen, renewable energy sources must provide the electricity input. Therefore, electrolysis will grow in popularity as we continually convert more electricity production to wind, solar, and other sustainable methods.

Electrolysis will enable green hydrogen production at a scale that achieves significant cost efficiencies, as demonstrated by SoCalGas’s recently proposed Angeles Link project. This system is expected to replace 25% of the natural gas SoGalGas delivers to the LA Basin for electricity generation.

FASTECH: Experts in Hydrogen Infrastructure EPC+M

Electrolysis’s sustainable hydrogen production methods provide a clear path towards a sustainable future and offer a direct replacement for thermochemical technologies.

Until production technologies can operate efficiently at much smaller scales, hydrogen gas will be created at dedicated plants with necessary transport infrastructure.

When it comes to hydrogen infrastructure engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance (EPC+M), FASTECH is the partner you’ve been looking for. We’re the leading provider of end-to-end energy solutions that reduce your carbon footprint and create a more sustainable tomorrow.

Contact us to find out how we can help you embrace sustainable hydrogen production methods.

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