Hydrogen Risks for Homeowners and Public Money — CleanTech Talk

In the first half of the podcast, Paul Martin and I talked about the new Hydrogen Science Coalition, of which Paul is a founding member, steel embrittlement and increased transmission leaks. In this second half, we dig deeper into hydrogen leaks, especially in homes, the issue of increased hydrogen risks in buildings, the evaporation rate of shipments, global supply implications, etc

We begin with a discussion of the end-to-end losses of natural gas versus hydrogen in transmission and distribution. In the first half of the year, we discussed the problem of the natural gas pipeline network, but the distribution network is also a big problem. Much of modern piping is made of polyethylene, replacing cast iron pipes that constantly break. Although it has advantages, hydrogen diffuses through polyethylene without any cracks. This means that we cannot reuse existing piping in very many cases, a fundamental disconnect on claims for reuse of infrastructure assets by natural gas utilities.

We made a digression to the boiling of hydrogen in maritime transport. When you have a gas stored as a liquid by keeping it cold at reasonable temperatures, the cryogenic liquid turns into a gas with any incoming heat. With ammonia and LNG you can run compression and cooling equipment and return it, as they are liquids at much higher temperatures than hydrogen with its boiling point of 24° Kelvin. The way to handle this is to create the largest vacuum insulated spherical tanks possible, but even so the evaporation rate is 0.2% per day. Shipping hydrogen tanks is likely to be worse because they can’t be that big. At truck level, the surface area to volume ratio leads to 1% losses per day.

This is true for hydrogen storage tanks at airports, where liquid hydrogen is the only option. Every airport should produce hydrogen near the airport and have a hydrogen liquefaction facility at every airport, according to Martin. This eliminates the economies of scale for the centralized manufacture and liquefaction of hydrogen, making it even more expensive as an aviation fuel.

Hydrogen has another pernicious problem, that of electron spin in hydrogen atoms. Basically, they have different spins at different temperatures, and when you cool hydrogen, it gives off heat due to spin changes. When the first humans made liquid hydrogen at 24° Kelvin, it became gaseous again the next day because of this problem. This means more equipment, energy and expense.

Liquefaction of hydrogen requires 3 times more energy than liquefaction of natural gas, then you lose 0.2% to 1% of the hydrogen per day due to evaporation. As a result, transporting hydrogen would cost 5 to 7 times more than transporting LNG.

And of course, putting it in pipes and moving it requires 3 times the energy to compress and move the hydrogen, so all compressors would have to be replaced.

So there are multiple loss issues throughout the supply chain, but when we introduce them into homes, things get even more problematic. We have 100 years of experience making safe natural gas appliances in homes. There are no appliances certified for hydrogen today, and no jurisdiction has existing building codes that support hydrogen appliances. As I’ve pointed out a few times, building codes and approvals are a patchwork that varies by municipality, not country. Every city would have to update its building codes and processes to allow hydrogen devices, a huge regulatory burden.

The next problem is that hydrogen has a much wider explosive range than natural gas. The lower explosive limit of methane is 6% while that of hydrogen is 4%. The upper explosive limit of hydrogen is 75%, well above that of natural gas by 15%. This means there is a much wider range of hydrogen leaks that will explode in homes. And hydrogen also ignites with a third of the energy of natural gas. The chances of an explosion in buildings with hydrogen compared to natural gas are much higher.

But wait, there’s more. Natural gas doesn’t smell because methane smells bad, but because we add odorants for safety. The mercaptans that we use in natural gas cannot be used with hydrogen because they react with it. Although there are odorants that work with hydrogen, they cause fuel cells to fail. This means that two hydrogen distribution networks would be needed, one for hydrogen devices and one for fuel cells, and the fuel cells would have to be outside the house, not inside. The requirements for a hydrogen smell are very high, and Martin doesn’t think they’ve found one, and maybe there isn’t.

We moved on to a discussion of engineers getting paid a lot of money to do interesting work trying to figure out the issues with hydrogen, and so on, where the issues and the economics make the effort pointless. Martin has been one of them in the past, and I’ve dealt with a lot of aerospace engineers who have wasted a lot of time in airborne wind power, and a lot of them have pivoted to space electric vertical take-off and landing systems, which I have written about extensively.

Martin’s concern is not about the engineers wasting their time, but about the public money going into these areas. If the wealthy and venture capitalists want to make very low probability bets, that’s their business. Public money that could be spent seriously on solving the decarbonization problem ends up being spent on the Emperor’s new clothes. Right now, the #hopium hydrogen outbreak is the missing daywear, and they’re usually not serious at all. While there are people who are really serious about hydrogen as a fuel, the fossil fuel industry is not serious. To paraphrase Michael Liebreich, hydrogen is a dead-end bet for the fossil fuel industry. Either they push hydrogen and that delays decarbonization and therefore the fossil fuel industry wins, or the fossil fuel industry is driven into the future with tens of billions of public money for blue hydrogen, and they win.

As an example, the proposed Suncor-ATCO facility in Edmonton is asking the government for C$1.3 billion to build a blue hydrogen facility for hydrogen to be used at an Edmonton refinery. Alberta crude oil is sour, meaning it contains a lot of sulphur, and hydrogen is used to desulphurize it. According to my projection of hydrogen demand to 2100, high sulfur crude will be taken off the market first, and we need to stop refining crude oil into fuels anyway.

Bunker fuels and asphalt for roads and roofing shingles are actually refinery waste, residue, so with the drastic reduction in refining we will also have to find substitutes for roads and roofs, while the shipping industry will have to refuel regardless.

One mystery that Martin keeps digging into is the lack of any movement in global bunker fuel markets with the residue ban as shipping fuel which entered in 2020. Martin has customers who expected a glut in the residue market and were going to take advantage of it to transform the residues into authorized products, but the glut never appeared. The assumption is that ocean shippers just keep burning it in international waters, flouting unenforced rules.

Shipping cost per ton-mile is 40% to 60% fuel, even using the cheapest fossil fuels available, sailing slowly to save fuel, and treating the atmosphere and oceans like sewers to open sky. Each alternative fuel will cost more. Of course, 40% of all shipping is oil, gas and coal, so that’s going to go away. Another 15% is raw iron ore, and with shipping costs increasing, much more local processing of iron ore and other products will be done, so more finished and higher value products will be shipped instead.

Right now we are using cheap energy to mask poor organization. The absurd supply chains that are jumping all over the earth are coming to an end. In a future where fossil CO2 emissions are costly, material recycling will become more prevalent. Steel and aluminum are already among the most recycled materials in the world, and this will only increase. Electric mini-plants close to scrap sources, powered by renewable energy, will drastically reduce the transport of steel and its components.

Aluminum is easier to decarbonize than steel, so Martin predicts that per unit of resistance, aluminum will be used much more as a structural component. The direct electrolytic process for aluminum using renewable energy has been around for 70 years. Some of the aluminum stages that currently use fossil fuels can be replaced more easily than the blast furnace for steel.

Martin ended with his thoughts for policy makers and those with their ears. First of all, it’s as simple as the Drake Wince vs Approved meme. In the top panel Drake winces and in the bottom he nods in approval. Hydrogen as a fuel is at the top of the meme, and replacing the current use of black hydrogen with green hydrogen is the endorsement at the bottom. Second, no to hydrogen blending, it’s just hydrogen as fuel. And finally, no to hydrogen as a transport fuel, because it is both inefficient and inefficient.

Originally posted on CleanTechnica Pro.

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