Has this company figured out cheap (or even free) hydrogen production?

(Serene Stache/dpa via AP)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time here delving into the question of whether or not hydrogen is a viable alternative fuel for the transportation industry. There have been some interesting technological advancements over the past decade that have allowed the limited use of hydrogen-powered vehicles, including buses and trains. For the time being, such uses are limited primarily because of a lack of supporting infrastructure, primarily recharging stations. That challenge could be overcome if there was more demand so the stations could be sustainably profitable.

But the other, perhaps bigger problem we’ve explored here is the fact the most abundant source of hydrogen we have today is water. We have plenty of water in the oceans, but the easiest way to split the hydrogen out of it is by running an electric current through it. And that uses more energy than you get out of the hydrogen as a fuel. That issue has impacted the profitability (and “green” credentials) of companies seeking to utilize the fuel, such as the group trying to produce fossil fuel-free steel. But perhaps a new technological breakthrough is about to change that. A start-up company in Pennsylvania named H Quest has announced that they’ve come up with a way to mass-produce hydrogen for use as a clean fuel. And they claim they can do it in a way that they could afford to give the hydrogen away for free. But as with everything in this field, there’s a catch. (Recharge News)

A US start-up says it has developed an emissions-free process that will make hydrogen from natural gas at such a low price it could give away the H2 for free.

This is because the technology will also produce high-value carbon-based products and chemicals at the same time as the hydrogen — and the income from selling those would be enough to render any project profitable.

‘Our unique AEM electrolysers will produce cheaper green hydrogen than any rival tech’ …

“Thanks to the high value of the carbon co-product, under the currently prevailing natural gas and electricity prices, H Quest could essentially give the hydrogen away for free, and still make a profit,” chief executive George Skoptsov tells Recharge.

As I already mentioned, water is one of the most common resources containing plenty of hydrogen, but there’s another place where you find it in abundance. That would be in oil and natural gas. While water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, fossil fuels are built from hydrocarbons, a combination of hydrogen and carbon. If you can split them apart, you’ll get a minimum of four times as much hydrogen as you will carbon. In heavier, longer-chain hydrocarbons, the ratio is even higher.

That’s what makes H Quest’s technology so fascinating. Using a technology they’ve developed called microwave plasma pyrolysis (don’t ask me) they use microwaves to move methane – one of the primary components in natural gas – into a plasma state. This allows them to strip away some of the hydrogen atoms, leaving behind a solid carbon or petrochemical compound such as acetylene. The carbon products are valuable and the company claims that the sale of those products pays for the entire process. That’s why they could, in theory, give the hydrogen away for free.

It sounds very encouraging, but now we get to the catch I mentioned above. The whole impetus for this push to move to hydrogen as a fuel, at least among the environmentalists and green energy enthusiasts, was to do away with the use of fossil fuels. I’m sure they will all be quite enthusiastic to see someone coming out with a cheap way to produce lots of hydrogen. But how excited will they be after you tell them that you’re still going to need to drill for vast amounts of natural gas to make the process work? On top of that, you’re going to finance the project by selling off all of the acetylene and other carbon products that result from the process. Those are fossil fuels too.

It always seems to come back to this, doesn’t it? If you want to generate hydrogen by splitting water you have to use a lot of electricity which is most often generated using either fossil fuels or nuclear energy. If you want to use this new microwave plasma pyrolysis method, you have to break up fossil fuel molecules to get the hydrogen out. Those pesky fossil fuels are always lurking somewhere in the back of the process, aren’t they?