Its nickname — the fuel of the future — is perhaps idealistic. But if things go just right, hydrogen could be a game-changer for Wyoming.
Generations of scientists have predicted an eventual, economy-wide move to hydrogen. Rekindled by periods of fuel scarcity, interest in hydrogen would subside again when supply stabilized: after international tensions faded, or a new resource emerged, or an old one got easier to reach. That’s because, in an energy market dominated by cheap, abundant, reliable fossil fuels, hydrogen was never quite competitive enough.
The lightest element on the periodic table, and the most abundant element in the universe, pure hydrogen is rare on earth. A colorless, odorless gas that can be burned to produce electricity, it can’t be extracted from existing reserves like natural gas. Instead, it has to be created, either from fossil fuels or water.
These days, hydrogen is relegated mostly to a handful of industrial uses, like petroleum refining and fertilizer production. But after decades on the periphery, clean hydrogen is gaining momentum as a stable fuel source that can be adopted without exacerbating climate change.
Wyoming already has a lot of the infrastructure that a clean hydrogen economy would require, according to Glen Murrell, director of the Wyoming Energy Authority. The state is home to an abundance of renewable electricity and hydrocarbon feedstock, plus the pipelines, railroads and interstate highways that would be needed to deliver the fuel to market.
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The private sector, particularly natural gas transmission companies, is starting to recognize that potential, Murrell said. The Energy Authority has already awarded $1.5 million in grant funding to three hydrogen feasibility studies, with more proposals likely to follow.
“There are at least another six projects that are being explored, certainly all at varying levels of maturity,” Murrell said. “They’re also at varying levels of scale. Some of them are enormous, absolutely colossal in scope. They’re in the multiple billions of dollars worth of investment and capital expense.”
The bulk of the Energy Authority funding went to Williams Companies, an Oklahoma-based natural gas transporter that has partnered with the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources to explore commercial production in the state. The study could ultimately lead to construction of a billion-dollar hydrogen hub in southwestern Wyoming.
“Williams has significant energy infrastructure in place with interconnectivity to potential high-demand markets for hydrogen,” a company spokesman wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “Our local workforce brings the operational expertise while the University of Wyoming brings the technical expertise. When combined with the state’s potential for large-scale renewable power production, Wyoming is a compelling fit.”
Understanding the hype
As production costs fall for both hydrogen generation types, decarbonizing economies are turning to the fuel, which only releases water and energy when combusted, to power high-emitting sectors and balance out the variability of wind and solar.
Wyoming is no exception. Heavily reliant on fossil fuel revenue, and with coal demand plummeting, the state has faced a worsening budget deficit for years. It’s begun investing in emerging energy technologies that it hopes will bring new economic development to communities.
“We went through an energy transition in the ‘70s, during the Clean Air Act, which was very beneficial for Wyoming,” Murrell said. “It’s when the Powder River Basin coal became such a valuable resource. That was a transition, and Wyoming did very, very well out of it. And there’s nothing that is preventing us from doing the same with the current transition. It’s just different in nature.”
The grant-funded projects aren’t the only hydrogen initiatives under development. In addition to partnering with Williams, the University of Wyoming is currently developing a dedicated Wyoming Hydrogen Energy Research Center.
“Because of the vast and available resources and energy infrastructure in Wyoming, experts at the School of Energy Resources believe that Wyoming could be a ‘headwater’ state for U.S hydrogen production,” Scott Quillinan, senior director of research at the UW School of Energy Resources, said in an emailed statement. “SER sees hydrogen as a new option to continue Wyoming’s history [as] a proud energy producer and exporter.”
Hydrogen could be especially important for another reason, too. Because the state plans to produce a substantial share of its hydrogen from natural gas, it’s possible that a booming hydrogen economy could sustain the industry, even after other demand for natural gas starts to fade.
Nationally, hydrogen predictions are circulating once again. Last summer, energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie declared the 2020s the likely “decade of hydrogen.” The Department of Energy announced this year that it intends to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen, no matter the source, to a dollar per kilogram by 2030.
“The cleanest hydrogen is obviously hydrogen produced using renewable electricity,” said Michelle Detwiler, executive director of the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance. “We’re not there yet. And the goal here is to reduce carbon as quickly as possible.”
For now, at least, all low-carbon options are on the table.
Clean hydrogen is an emerging industry, but the fuel itself has been used for a very long time. It’s a major component of coal gas, the earliest source of industrial gas lighting, which was first installed in cities at the start of the 19th century.
The U.S. now produces more than 10 million metric tons of hydrogen each year, according to the Department of Energy. Nearly all of it comes from fossil fuels: 95% from natural gas and 4% from coal. The remaining 1% is made with water. Roughly 60% of hydrogen, regardless of fuel type, is generated in dedicated facilities.
The carbon-intensive hydrogen traditionally made from fossil fuels is known, colloquially, as “gray” hydrogen. In the U.S., it’s almost always created using natural gas, via a method called steam methane reforming. About 75% of global hydrogen is made this way.
“Most of the hydrogen in the world is produced through steam methane reforming,” said Nate Weiland, a senior fellow for energy conversion engineering at the National Energy Technology Laboratory. “Carbon dioxide is typically not captured in that production method.”
Natural gas is mostly methane. When that methane is combined with very hot steam, in the presence of a catalyst, it breaks down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Added water reacts with the carbon monoxide, forming carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. The hydrogen is then separated out, and the carbon dioxide is released.
Though it’s predominant today, steam methane reforming isn’t the only way to make hydrogen. Coal gasification, sometimes called “brown” hydrogen production, is performed by heating coal with oxygen. It generates a syngas made of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Like with steam methane reforming, reacting that gas with water produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Renewable biomass can be gasified, too, but it’s pricey.
The abundant U.S. supply of natural gas means that steam methane reforming is usually more cost-effective than coal gasification. But despite making up a small fraction of domestic hydrogen production, coal still contributes close to one-fourth of the world’s hydrogen supply. Very little carbon is captured from either process.
Technologically, Weiland said, it’s possible to retrofit existing steam methane reforming plants with carbon capture. It may not be the most efficient approach.
“The difficulty with it is there are two streams from which the CO2 has to be captured,” he said. “Some of the natural gas is burned to provide heat for the process, so you need to collect the CO2 from that flue gas stream. And then on the other side, the natural gas has reformed into a syngas, which includes hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and that carbon has to be separated from the hydrogen there.”
When hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels, but the excess carbon is captured, it becomes known, most commonly, as “blue” hydrogen. Adding carbon capture raises steam methane reforming costs by about 50%, from $1 per kilogram to around $1.52 per kilogram, though new research suggests that the energy costs — and the total emissions — could be significantly higher than anticipated.
But hydrogen can be made from methane in other ways, too. Weiland pointed to another, similar process, called autothermal reforming, that’s also commercially established, but better suited for carbon capture. While it’s a little bit more expensive to run, it only emits carbon from one source.
The reduced need for carbon capture offsets the higher cost, he said, making it a more economical option for “blue” hydrogen production.
During autothermal reforming, pure oxygen is added to methane, generating the heat needed to break it down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide — the same result achieved through steam methane reforming. Because the air separation technologies used to produce that oxygen work better when they’re bigger, autothermal reforming is typically done on a large scale, Weiland said.
And once the carbon is captured, it has to be put somewhere. Research is ongoing on underground storage in geologic formations like saline reservoirs, including at the University of Wyoming.
“We’ll probably be seeing a lot more of those wells permitted and drilled within the next five years, so I think there’ll be a lot more opportunities for carbon capture and storage in the pretty near future,” Weiland said.
In areas where geologic storage is limited, blue hydrogen producers may opt for methane pyrolysis, another commercialized alternative, instead, in which “you basically take the methane and heat it up to very high temperatures,” Weiland said. “The methane will fall apart into hydrogen and solid carbon products.”
Existing methane pyrolysis facilities are used for making solid carbon, which can be processed into products like graphite and carbon fibers. The hydrogen is just a useful byproduct, because, at present, it costs more to generate hydrogen through methane pyrolysis than other methods, though selling the solid carbon would help to make up the difference, Weiland said.
Even as the U.S. looks to separate itself from coal and natural gas, it’s investing in the production of hydrogen from fossil fuel sources. The efficiency of carbon capture technology itself can exceed 90%. As renewables continue to be established, the fossil fuel infrastructure is already in place.
Still, the climate impacts are uncertain. Methane has 25 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, and some inevitably escapes during transit; estimates of the total lost volume vary widely. Because of the limitations of “blue” hydrogen, groups like the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance want to see it used as an intermediate step, not a permanent resource.
The colors ascribed to hydrogen aren’t always obvious. But “green” hydrogen is exactly what it sounds like. It’s made from water, through a process that’s powered by renewable energy.
Wind and solar are variable electricity sources. When the weather is dark and calm, they generate very little; when it’s bright and windy, they may generate too much. Utility-scale battery storage helps to stabilize supply, but the existing technology is still limited.
“Today’s batteries, and certainly tomorrow’s batteries, do an excellent job of shifting that power, or the energy, by a few hours, maybe even a day or two,” said Keith Wipke, laboratory program manager for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “But it’s really hard to imagine batteries scaling up to the point, logistically and economically, where you would want to store, say, a week’s worth of a utility grid, all in batteries.”
By using surplus electricity to produce hydrogen, utilities could store and redistribute it as needed, he said.
That generation process, called electrolysis, splits water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. Historically, it’s been performed using alkaline electrolyzers, in which a liquid alkaline solution is circulated around a pair of electrodes that have a separator in between.
Alkaline electrolysis is an established technology, and can be built with relatively low-cost materials, but it’s most effective when operated continuously, using a steady fuel source, such as fossil fuels or hydropower.
Those older electrolyzers weren’t built for the fluctuations of wind and solar. Newer proton exchange membrane, or PEM, electrolysis technology was built for exactly that.
PEM works a lot like its alkaline predecessor. It, too, uses electricity to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen. But the solid polymer membrane it’s named for serves as the electrolyte, and the only circulating liquid is water.
It’s adapted from the fuel cells designed for use in hydrogen cars, which are usually driven for less than an hour per day, and are turned on and off frequently.
“That same kind of flexibility then applies to the PEM electrolyzers,” Wipke said. “That’s why electrolyzers are a really good match for making green hydrogen from renewables, because they can follow that power profile, you know, go into an idle mode or shut off overnight when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing.”
The Department of Energy estimates that a kilogram of PEM hydrogen costs roughly $5. Its high price is due, in part, to the cost of building electrolyzers, which require substantial quantities of precious metals, including platinum and iridium, as well as the cost of the renewable energy it consumes.
“Today’s electrolyzers have a long life, but only because they’re using lots of expensive materials,” Wipke said. That quantity allows the devices to maintain functionality, even as the metals start to become degraded, but PEM researchers want to slow that degradation.
PEM is still being refined. It’s also market-ready enough to benefit from real-world deployment, Wipke said.
“Not only do you give familiarity to stakeholders of this technology, but you actually begin to prepare the supply chain to scale up, you start triggering larger factories to be built, more companies to balance a plant, at a scale that drives down the cost,” he said. “You’ve got to kind of do all these things in parallel, which is why it’s so challenging to do, but also why it’s worth doing, because the reward at the end of this is so important to our future.”
As production expands, he said, the cost of PEM-produced hydrogen is likely to fall, boosting demand and further incentivizing production.
The hydrogen color wheel
The three main colors assigned to types of hydrogen — gray, blue and green — haven’t been standardized. That makes it easy for the classifications to become muddled.
“I think the direction that we’re headed in is to start to steer away from these colors, which could actually mean different things to different people,” Wipke said. “There’s going to be subtleties in these production pathways for hydrogen, where somebody’s blue may be different from somebody else’s blue.”
In recent years, the idea of linking colors to different generation types has also given rise to an entire spectrum of hydrogen technologies.
There’s gray (or sometimes brown) for steam methane reforming. Brown (or sometimes black) for coal gasification. Blue for fossil-fueled production that uses carbon capture. Green for electrolysis powered by renewables. Turquoise for methane pyrolysis. Pink for nuclear-powered electrolysis. Red and purple for other processes fueled by nuclear. Yellow for solar-powered electrolysis — or mixed-origin electrolysis, depending on who you ask. And white for naturally occurring hydrogen.
“Colors don’t make any sense,” Detwiler, from the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance, said. “It’s not an explainable concept.”
Experts and advocates alike want to talk about generation in terms of carbon intensity, not color. Without carbon capture, steam methane reforming emits 8–12 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of hydrogen produced, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. Coal gasification emits 18–20 kilograms.
The federal infrastructure bill, which allocates $9.5 billion toward clean hydrogen research and development, defines clean hydrogen as “hydrogen produced with a carbon intensity equal to or less than 2 kilograms.”
Under the definition in the infrastructure bill, any hydrogen source could be considered clean, as long as its carbon intensity is low enough.
Employing numerical standards makes it possible to characterize generation types by their emissions, Detwiler said.
“It’s just about reducing carbon,” she said. “You’re trying to get to the lowest carbon intensity possible, so it’s measurable and verifiable.”
Establishing a hydrogen economy
Even a swift transition to clean hydrogen would take years, if not decades, experts say. In addition to building generation and storage capacity, getting there would require overhauling everything from cars and gas stations to older pipeline systems and natural gas-powered household appliances.
To date, roughly 11,600 hydrogen cars have been sold or leased in the U.S. since the first commercial fuel cell vehicle was launched in 2013. Of the country’s 48 existing hydrogen fueling stations, 47 are located in California. The fledgling fuel cell transportation industry has been slowed not only by the limited hydrogen infrastructure, but by the greater availability and rapid advancement of fully electric vehicles.
According to Wipke, trucks, not cars, are the key to a hydrogen economy.
“I think the next market to kind of bingo is going to be the medium and heavy-duty trucking industry,” he said. “This technology is really, from the PEM fuel cell side, I think, ready to go. The big challenge on the heavy duty trucking is really the infrastructure, and that’s what we’ve got some research at NREL working on, is very high-throughput hydrogen fueling.”
Hydrogen fuel cell trucks aren’t yet commercially available. Should they get there, Wipke said, it’ll open the door for fuel cell cars.
“There’s this beautiful synergy between hydrogen fuel cell trucks and hydrogen fuel cell cars, in that there aren’t as many heavy-duty trucks on the road today, but they go through a lot of diesel fuel. And there’s a lot of cars on the road today, but they don’t, on average, consume that much fuel relative to the trucks,” he said.
Which means that if trucks make the jump to hydrogen, it’ll be much easier for cars to do the same. And if that leads to a build-out of hydrogen distribution infrastructure, including pipeline systems, Wipke said, other sectors will follow.
Just about anything powered by coal, oil or natural gas today could be converted to use hydrogen. Some technologies, like airplanes, can’t easily make that switch. But researchers are figuring out how to convert hydrogen into other fuels, including synthetic natural gas and sustainable aviation fuel, potentially allowing for the decarbonization of hard-to-transition industries.
Expanding hydrogen infrastructure would make those fuels cheaper, too.
Already, the U.S. has about 1,600 miles of mostly short-distance hydrogen pipelines; it has close to 200,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines and more than 2,000,000 miles of natural gas pipelines. Some of those pipeline systems could be repurposed for hydrogen transmission, Wipke said.
Most hydrogen is currently transported by truck, and stored in tanks that are best suited for small-scale, short-term use. Larger-scale, longer-term storage will require geologic storage in underground formations like salt caverns, saline aquifers, depleted oil and gas reservoirs and engineered hard rock sites, similar to the options being studied for carbon sequestration.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming believe that the state’s geology will yield plenty of hydrogen storage opportunities.
Using the state’s existing resources to build a hydrogen economy would maintain its status as an energy exporter, Murrell, from the Energy Authority, said.
“We simply don’t have the population, so we have to be pushing this product into where the consumer markets are,” he said. “At least at this point in time, it looks like Wyoming is setting up to follow the same model in terms of being a generation and production center that exports products into other areas, which are the consumption centers.”
While many, including the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance, want to see federal climate policy facilitate the adoption of clean hydrogen, Wipke expects the private sector to spur that transition — though he said government support is also important.
“At the end of the day, we’ve seen that the private sector can drive things pretty rapidly if they just set goals and then hold their partners to those goals,” he said.
Ultimately, Murrell believes it’ll take collaboration with industry, like the Williams project, for Wyoming to establish a hydrogen economy.
As coal declines, and with oil and gas expected to follow in the coming decades, the race is on for the state to develop new resources before demand fades away.