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Home » Editorial » As The Demand Heats Up, Low-Carbon Hydrogen Production Is Near

As The Demand Heats Up, Low-Carbon Hydrogen Production Is Near

Ken Silverstein 

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is best known as home to the LSU Tigers, but energy experts will soon recognize it for its low-carbon hydrogen production, which will start two years from now. It will use biomass as a feedstock and produce 10 to 15 tons of carbon-negative hydrogen daily by 2029.

Steam methane reformation—using natural gas—and electrolysis now produce nearly all hydrogen, requiring massive fuel consumption and electricity. However, the Baton Rouge plant has a technique called “chemical looping,” which uses an iron ore particle to separate the hydrogen from oxygen. While coal, natural gas, or biomass are the underlying fuels, developers can capture the resulting CO2 and bury it or use it for enhanced oil recovery.

“This technology has net-negative carbon intensity,” Kenny Young, chief executive of Babcock & Wilcox told me. His company is building the Baton Rouge-based hydrogen plant. “It is important to be flexible. Developing countries can’t revamp their entire grid. The cost is phenomenal. We must do this on a transitionary basis. A wide variety of fuels are necessary to drive the transition. In the long term, it is more cost-effective.”

Chemical looping technology can help industries become sustainable. To produce hydrogen, the hot particle—the iron ore—enters a hydrogen reactor and searches for oxygen. Notably, the CO2 is isolated and captured. The result is pure hydrogen—to fuel transportation, energy, and hard-to-abate industries. We won’t meet our 2050 carbon-neutrality goals unless we decarbonize industrial process heat.

In contrast, electrolysis creates an electric current to split apart hydrogen and oxygen from water. If producers use clean resources to generate the current, the output is called “green hydrogen.” But that process is expensive, requiring mass production and a carbon penalty to drive down costs and increase the capital flowing into clean technologies.

Separately, steam-reforming natural gas now generates most hydrogen, called “grey hydrogen.” It only uses natural gas. If the resulting CO2 releases are captured and buried, it is known as “blue hydrogen.”

Developers Jockey For Position

Grey hydrogen produced from fossil fuels now costs $1-$3 per kilogram, while renewable or green hydrogen prices are $3-$4 a kilogram, and in some cases, they are much greater.

“Our company can produce clean hydrogen today at $1.50 per kilogram,” says Young. “The U.S. Department of Energy is aiming for $1 a kilogram. We are already competitive with steam methane reformation or natural gas, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere. But we are net negative.”

The enterprises inventing electrolyzers want to scale the technology, reducing the cost of green hydrogen produced from solar and wind energy. Once creators increase production, the cost of electrolysis will fall to $1 to $1.50 a kilogram. “But it is a question of timing,” says Young. “When does that happen, and when can the grid handle mostly renewable energy?”

Babcock & Wilcox also uses chemical looping in Ohio and Wyoming. The Ohio plant will start producing hydrogen next year and use natural gas as the primary fuel. That plant will make 1 to 3 tons daily, which the industrial and transportation sectors will deploy. The facility in Wyoming will go live in 2028 and use coal. It will start producing 10 to 15 tons of hydrogen daily and gradually scale up, which utilities and transport companies will consume.

According to the International Energy Agency 2023 Global Hydrogen Review, low-carbon hydrogen projects are revving up: If all the announced deals come to fruition, annual production could reach 38 million metric tons in 2030. For that to happen, those projects need money. As for Babcock’s plants, they get some government funding.

“We are taking steps to fast-track this technology to a commercial state,” says Young. “We will be as green as any project in the world.”

Babcock & Wilcox’s fundamental premise is that the green energy transition takes time and that its technology is already practical. Electrolysis also has enormous promise. The upsurge in demand means low-carbon hydrogen generation is near. To reach its potential, though, developers must scale up, driving down the costs of production, transportation, and storage.

As The Demand Heats Up, Low-Carbon Hydrogen Production Is Near (forbes.com)