For decades—centuries even—hydrogen has been an elusive dream energy. It’s viewed as a silver bullet theorized to efficiently and cost-effectively power the entire world, satisfying our growing energy needs. However, there have been more than a few bumps along the road.
H2 is the first box in the periodic table of elements and is estimated to constitute 75% of the mass of the universe. But, it’s rarely found in a pure form. Instead, it’s often part of compounds like H20 or NH3. The process of splitting pure hydrogen from water–electrolysis–was discovered in 1800. However, hydrogen innovation is only now gaining investment and momentum.
Hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier, and is considered ‘clean’ because its only byproduct is water vapor. H2 has the potential to decarbonize energy and industries that are difficult to electrify. It can be produced using a variety of resources, including nuclear power, natural gas, solar and wind energy.
Natural gas is the current standard when it comes to both heating and electricity. It’s a greener alternative to coal and is widely available via a network of existing pipelines across the country. However, when natural gas is burned, carbon dioxide is emitted, whereas hydrogen does not release any carbon. The United States, the European Union and other governments have all introduced plans to transition away from fossil fuels in favor of lower carbon energy options, like hydrogen.
Developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), HydroPel is a nanocomposite surface treatment created to enable existing gas infrastructure to move massive volumes of clean hydrogen, safely. Technologies like HydroPel could be the key to incorporating clean-burning H2 into the national grid.
Transporting hydrogen through existing natural gas infrastructure is efficient and economical, but also risky due to a phenomenon called hydrogen embrittlement. Without protection, hydrogen molecules can diffuse into the metal of the pipeline walls, making the pipe brittle and leading to cracks, leaks, and failures. Treatment must be conducted on a nanoscale to block H2 diffusion to prevent this embrittlement of pipelines.
The technology works as a nano-protective barrier on the pipe interior, protecting against hydrogen penetration while also reducing drag. This, in turn, reduces the cost to pump high volumes of gas. By addressing the embrittlement problem, HydroPel eliminates the need to build entirely new pipelines to move H2 to users across the country. It unlocks over 3 million miles of the already existing network that could be refurbished to carry H2.
Hawaii’s largest natural gas distributor, Hawaii Gas, is piloting HydroPel technology this year. Hawaii Gas currently operates more than 1,000 miles of pipeline for the Hawaiian islands, moving a mixture of natural gas and 10-12% hydrogen. They can do so because the volumes and pressures involved in their pipeline do not present an embrittlement risk. For many utilities like Hawaii Gas, the goal is to safely blend 20% hydrogen, or more, with natural gas using current infrastructure while not risking failures from embrittlement. The pilot program at Hawaii Gas will demonstrate how this technology could be used nationally to blend hydrogen into scaled natural gas supplies, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
HydroPel is an exciting development for the oil and gas industry. For H2 to be a feasible blend for natural gas, it needs to be produced, moved, and delivered at scale. If HydroPel were applied to the estimated three million miles of natural gas pipeline across the United States, it would result in savings of hundreds of billions of dollars in new gas infrastructure construction. Hydrogen blending with natural gas is a realistic and immediate way to implement greener strategies in the energy industry. It’s one way to work towards the DoE’s Hydrogen Shot goal of delivering a 16% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
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