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The hydrogen economy needs a 10-year plan, researchers argue

Researchers suggest in a new commentary that a clean hydrogen economy is doable, which could include hydrogen-powered vehicles like the one former U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham is pictured checking out, but a game plan is needed to make it happen. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI
Researchers suggest in a new commentary that a clean hydrogen economy is doable, which could include hydrogen-powered vehicles like the one former U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham is pictured checking out, but a game plan is needed to make it happen. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Energy researchers insist the green economy needs hydrogen, and according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Joule, the hydrogen economy needs a 10-year plan.

The paper, a scientific commentary, lays out the necessities for a sustainable hydrogen economy, including development details related to infrastructure, transport, storage and use, as well as production goals and benchmarks for economic viability.

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"An H2 economy already exists, but it involves lots of greenhouse gas emissions," commentary lead author Arun Majumdar said in a press release.

Roughly 70 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced globally each year, but U.S. producers only account for about one-seventh of that total.

The vast majority of that hydrogen is used to make fertilizer and petrochemicals, and almost all of it is accompanied by significant CO2 emissions. This is called "gray" H2.

"Almost all of it is based on H2 from methane. A clean H2 economy does not exist today," Majumdar, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

Efforts to end the economy's reliance on fossil fuels have mostly focused on the adoption of solar and wind energy.

But even after the planet's electrical grids are entirely supplied by green power, energy experts insist an eco-friendly fuel will be needed for industrial heat, long-haul heavy transportation and long-duration energy storage.

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Many energy researchers and policy makers are confident that hydrogen can be that fuel.

Some researchers contend the best way to jumpstart a hydrogen economy is to invest in "blue H2," which involves the capture and use of CO2 emissions to synthesize H2. Unfortunately, blue H2 production costs 50 percent more than gray H2.

"To make blue H2 a viable option, research and development is needed to reduce CO2 capture costs and further improve capture completeness," researchers write in the commentary.

The cleanest form of H2 is "green H2," which involves the use of electricity and electrolyzers to split water.

Green H2 production doesn't yield greenhouse gas emissions, but it costs $4 to $6 per kilogram. The researchers suggest production costs could be halved as the price of green energy drops.

"Turquoise H2" is produced via methane pyrolysis, or methane cracking, which involves the separation of solid carbon from natural gas.

The economic value of solid carbon can help offset production costs, but the demand for solid carbon is currently insufficient to make turquoise H2 economically viable.

To make turquoise H2 a reality, policy makers will need to spearhead efforts to develop new markets for its use.

Regardless of how H2 is produced, makers will need to approach $1 per kilogram in order to build an economically viable hydrogen economy. An economically viable hydrogen economy will also require pipelines, as well as storage and distribution facilities.

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"Developing and siting new pipeline infrastructure is generally expensive and involves challenges of social acceptance," researchers write.

"Therefore, it is important to explore alternative approaches for a hydrogen economy that does not require a new H2 pipeline infrastructure," they write.

According to the commentary's authors, the U.S. Geological Survey should be called upon to conduct a national survey of suitable underground hydrogen storage locations.

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