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Gas companies moving toward more expensive hydrogen to please green advocates

(AP Photo/Murray Becker, File)

If you’ve been following the oil and gas industry news recently, you’re likely aware that they’ve been fighting back against government mandates that seek to hinder energy production in that sector in favor of more “green,” renewable energy such as wind and solar. Gasoline and natural gas aren’t going away any time soon, but many of the major manufacturers have clearly seen the writing on the wall and are taking steps to remain viable if the government eventually shuts them down entirely. One aspect of this evolution in technology that’s being looked into by outfits including BP and Royal Dutch Shell is the possibility of producing hydrogen to be used as a fuel if the market for gasoline largely dries up. Hydrogen is already used as a fuel in certain applications, but using it on a vast, commercial scale with currently available technology presents many challenges. (Bloomberg)

The global gas industry is in an existential race: either find a way to be part of the next generation of energy or risk getting supplanted by alternatives.

BP Plc, Sinopec, Equinor ASA and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are among the producers looking to hydrogen to help secure demand that otherwise may falter as decarbonization speeds up. They want to utilize existing pipelines, storage tankers and fuel supply to make blue hydrogen, a process that uses natural gas but captures the carbon emissions and stores them.

Hydrogen is actually an excellent fuel source that can produce significant amounts of energy. Most rockets use liquid hydrogen combined with oxygen as fuel for their secondary stages. There are already some hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market, though the infrastructure to support and fuel them on a wide scale isn’t in place yet. And if climate concerns are your primary motivation there’s a lot to like about hydrogen. It’s combined with oxygen to produce electricity, creating no byproducts aside from steam and excess heat.

But hydrogen also comes with significant challenges if you want to use it on a massive scale. First of all, we only have two truly viable ways to produce hydrogen in significant volumes. One, referred to as “blue hydrogen,” is created by breaking down natural gas (a hydrocarbon), keeping the hydrogen for use as fuel, and relying on carbon-capture technology to take care of the rest. That’s not a very satisfying answer for green warriors because it’s still relying on fossil fuels to produce it, and getting rid of fossil fuels was the whole point to begin with. It’s also a messy and inefficient (or just dumb) way to create energy because you have to dump even more energy into the process upfront just to split apart something that was already an excellent, efficient fuel source to begin with.

The other method we have to produce hydrogen requires splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by running an electrical current through it. That results in a supply of hydrogen and oxygen (from H2O), both of which are very useful as fuels to produce energy. This is known as “green hydrogen.” But, again, you immediately run into some problems. First of all, it takes more energy to split water molecules than can be harnessed from the resultant fuels. It’s a losing process over the long run. Also, all of that electricity to split the water has to come from somewhere, right? And currently, the lion’s share of it comes from… you guessed it… burning fossil fuels, primarily natural gas. In theory, if you could produce enough juice from solar panels or a wind farm to split that much seawater, you’d have a clean system of fuel production, but we’re still a long way from generating that much solar and wind energy.

There’s one other complicating factor with using hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline. Gasoline can be happily hauled around in tankers at ambient temperatures and pressures, but transporting and storing hydrogen is a challenge, particularly if it’s being compressed into a tank in your vehicle. If the system fails and all of that hydrogen suddenly escapes near some sort of sparks or a heat source, you’re looking at a recipe for, well… just ask the survivors of the Hindenburg. So hydrogen may wind up being the fuel of the future someday, but there’s a lot of work to be done before we get there.