Hydrogen can play a key role in the decarbonization of the US

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Image: Berkeley Lab scientists Adam Weber (left) and Ahmet Kusoglu
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Photo credit: Berkeley Lab

Earlier this summer, Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm launched the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Earthshots Initiative, and the first Energy Earthshot is the “Hydrogen shot with the aim of accelerating the development and use of clean hydrogen in all sectors.

The DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) plays a leading role in the research and development of clean hydrogen, both on the basic science side and on the applied technology side.

Adam Weber is the program manager for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies for Berkeley Lab and leads the Energy conversion group (EKG) and Ahmet Kusoglu is a research associate at the ECG, a multidisciplinary team of electrochemists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, theorists and materials scientists with active collaboration between industry, universities and national laboratories.

October 8th is Hydrogen and fuel cell day, chosen because the atomic weight of hydrogen is 1.008. Weber and Kusoglu took some time to discuss the benefits of a hydrogen economy.

Q: What makes hydrogen such a promising, clean source of energy?

Kusoglu: Hydrogen is not really an energy carrier. It is more of an energy carrier, or what we often call an energy vector. So you have to produce hydrogen from another energy source, store it and then use or convert it. Hydrogen is a versatile and flexible energy carrier because it can be produced from different sources and for different applications. This flexibility is a major advantage of hydrogen over other hydrocarbon fuels or energy storage technologies such as batteries.

Weber: Hydrogen is a clean energy carrier because it doesn’t contain any carbon at all. So when we talk about decarbonized energy, we are storing everything in a hydrogen-to-hydrogen bond. It’s also a relatively small and simple molecule that makes it easier to get electricity or energy into the bonds and remove them when we use it.

Q: We’ve been talking about hydrogen for years. Why is it now more of a game changer and how can hydrogen be used across industries?

Weber: The recent focus on decarbonization and climate change means that we will experience the hydrogen economy much sooner than we previously forecast. We see hydrogen as something that can really help decarbonise hard-to-decarbonise sectors. These applications include industrial uses such as a reducing agent in steel production or the production of green ammonia for fertilizers, the use of its thermal energy for thermal processes or heavy transport such as long-distance transport, maritime transport, trains and aviation, to name a few. While we can make hydrogen and generate electricity from it, it won’t be as efficient as a traditional redox flow or lithium-ion battery, although it could be an answer for a very long storage life.

The fact that hydrogen is such a central molecule for so many different areas and has so many different properties of thermal, chemical and electrochemical energy makes it a critical energy carrier. Because electrochemical processes are inherently scalable and modular, the associated environmental costs of transportation can be avoided by producing and using hydrogen where it is needed, such as making fertilizer efficiently on a farm instead of having to transport it .

Kusoglu: Hydrogen has the potential to provide a cleaner path for various industrial and chemical products across the supply chain and across sectors. It’s not just about electrification or electric vehicles. For example, hydrogen is used as a reducing agent in steel and iron production and is linked to ammonia production in agriculture, and hydrogen-based fuels could eventually be used in shipping and aviation.

Q: What is the role of Berkeley Lab in advancing hydrogen research?

Weber: I would say one of Berkeley Lab’s strengths is our deep understanding and breadth, which enables us to conduct research that can have various effects, ranging from basic research discoveries to immediate market impacts. So we can take something that is at the very basic level of a single interaction or phenomenon, and we know how to pass that knowledge towards something that will be relevant to an application.

Kusoglu: Berkeley Lab, as part of the MillionMile Fuel Truck Consortium, is working on fuel cell trucks, especially for long-distance transport. I think hydrogen will be a unique solution for decarbonising heavy vehicle fleets and freight transport. Hydrogen will not only help displace diesel engines in freight transport, it will also improve air quality and help communities near freight corridors, train stations or ports where people are most affected by diesel particulate emissions.

Weber: There is the impact on environmental justice. The fact that it’s cleaner is great, but the fact that it’s cleaner in communities that are more likely to have negative impacts from fossil fuel emissions will be even better. For example, communities near truck corridors or harbors have been shown to have adverse health effects from diesel truck emissions. Hydrogen can also actually democratize energy. You can now have better energy production and capability in places that don’t have much energy infrastructure today, such as tribal areas.

Q: DOE announced an Energy Earthshot for long-term storage of energy. What role could hydrogen play in this?

Weber: The storage of chemicals is really one of the most important things for long-term storage. By long duration, we mean several hours or several days or even seasonal. Hydrogen can play an important role as one of the most efficient ways to store energy chemically, especially in connection with geological or large-scale storage. And that’s something Berkeley Lab is pursuing – investigating the requirements for things like geological storage or storage in porous media in general. The laboratory examines questions such as: How can hydrogen be efficiently fed into and out of this type of system? And what does hydrogen do with this environment compared to natural gas or methane in these environments?

Q: Describe the main challenges you face in hydrogen research. How is your team approaching these challenges?

Weber: All in all, they are extremely complex devices. While the molecule is simple, when we actually use it in many different applications there is a lot of physics and chemistry on different lengths and timescales. Getting to grips with all of this is always a challenge, but I think it’s also a challenge that Berkeley Lab is very well suited to with its advanced scientific user facilities and extensive expertise in these various research areas.

Hydrogen research at the Berkeley Lab encompasses around nine different departments in the laboratory. I think it’s just a realization that these issues are very cross-cutting. Different labs have different levels of expertise, and to really solve that, it’s better to get everyone on board than to compete with each other. So working together to really make the hydrogen economy a reality – that’s really what we’re trying to do.

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-By Kiran Julin

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the greatest scientific challenges can best be overcome by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been awarded 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, researchers at the Berkeley Lab are developing sustainable energy and environmental solutions, developing useful new materials, pushing the boundaries of computer science and exploring the secrets of life, matter and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the laboratory’s facilities for their own discovery research. Berkeley Lab is a national multi-program laboratory run by the University of California for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest funder of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.



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