Hydrogen for transportation fuel has not reached large scale at an affordable cost, worldwide. But it’s gaining traction. There are about 500 hydrogen production projects worldwide, with dozens to be deployed by 2030, according to developers’ announcements.
Jean-Louis Kindler, chief executive officer, Ways2H, speaks in this Q&A about what’s happening with hydrogen fuel including potential for biomass as a source and what’s driving the demand for it. He discusses pricing, and at what point it would be much cheaper than fossil fuels, as well as which hydrogens have the best carbon footprints and why. And he touches on a new Ways2H project: helping to build the hydrogen infrastructure at the Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Waste360: How mature is the market for hydrogen as transportation fuel today?
Kindler: There are about 17,000 fuel cell vehicles in operation in California, with a hundred hydrogen filling stations in operation or under construction. Many states in the U.S. are following suit. Technologies such as fuel cells to produce electricity from hydrogen, hydrogen compression and storage into tanks, production of hydrogen have been operational for decades and are mature enough to be commercialized. The industry’s challenge today is to industrialize these technologies into mass production, to be able to produce them at a cost that would make these competitive with existing solutions. We are witnessing major efforts from countries, worldwide, to initiate the development of hydrogen infrastructure. Globally, there are over 500 hydrogen production projects, including over 40 gigascale plants, that have been announced to be deployed between now and 2030.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released, in 2016, a report demonstrating that there is a potential yearly biomass harvest, including but not limited to agricultural waste biomass, of one billion tons. One-billion-ton biomass is approximately 50 million tons hydrogen, which, at 60 miles per kg hydrogen for a passenger vehicle, potentially provides enough fuel to cover 90 percent of the miles driven by the whole U.S. population. It does not mean that all vehicles will ultimately run on hydrogen. But this number illustrates the real potential based on renewable sources as a clean energy source for mobility.
Waste360: What is the trend with pricing of hydrogen for transportation fuel?
Kindler: The first hydrogen filling stations in California were selling the fuel at approximately $16 per kg. Market price today, including in Europe, is between $12 and $10 per kg. This is already cheaper than a gasoline vehicle full tank. The industry targets a price for hydrogen at the pump going as low as $7 to $8, at which point it will be significantly cheaper than fossil fuels, with massive environmental benefits. The real benefits and economies of scale have not kicked in yet, and most of the initial price reduction effects we see today are due to incentives and subsidies. Just as with the solar PV industry or the vehicle batteries, we expect industrialization and cost reductions to gradually replace the need for subsidies.
Waste360: What is the difference between grey, blue, and green hydrogen?
Kindler: Grey hydrogen is what has mostly been produced so far. It is the result of the “cracking” of natural gas or methane, which is a fossil fuel, into hydrogen and CO2. This CO2 is usually released to the atmosphere and emits greenhouse gasses.
Blue hydrogen also comes from natural gas, but the CO2 is captured and sequestered. As such, and because hydrogen, when consumed, only releases water vapor; there are no GHGs emitted.
Green hydrogen does not use any fossil energy source. It is produced using water electrolysis, using electric current to break water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen is considered green only if the electric current is renewable, coming from either wind, solar or hydroelectric power.
Producing hydrogen from methane also opens the door to renewable hydrogen production, as methane can be produced from biomass, leveraging anaerobic digestion. However, electrolysis or “green hydrogen” seems to be the mainstream production pathway for renewable hydrogen.
Waste360: What’s going on with hydrogen from waste?
Kindler: The issue with green hydrogen is that there are very few places in the world where available electricity is fully renewable. In average, worldwide, only 30 percent of the produced electricity is renewable. It means that we already have a huge effort to make to decarbonize electricity production for our current electricity demand. Then with battery electric vehicles coming en masse, there are increased power needs. Adding green hydrogen production to this growing demand means that there will be massive efforts needed in terms of renewable electricity production infrastructure to achieve decarbonization.
Hydrogen from waste is an alternative, as these solutions require minimal power. Their main energy source comes from the waste itself. Municipal solid waste is on average renewable at 84 percent. We are witnessing an increased number of stakeholders developing and deploying waste-to-hydrogen solutions. Companies like Sierra Energy, Kore, RavenSR in the U.S. or Boson Energy, Plagazi in Europe are proposing solutions to the waste industry to offer an alternative to incineration and landfilling. Waste to energy has for a long time meant incinerating that waste and using the incineration heat to produce electricity. We expect this to change, allowing stakeholders in the waste industry to take a significant part in the 21st Century’s renewable, clean energy production.
Waste360: Describe Ways2H’s technology.
Kindler: Ways2H’s technology uses heat to vaporize solid organic matter and break it into its elemental gasses.
The scientific definition of “organic” is “which contains hydrogen and carbon,” and organic matter usually comes from living organisms, plants, and animals. Food, wood, paper, textile, rubber etc. are organic, and even plastics are organic because they come from crude oil, which is made of plants that were fossilized over a long period.
When heating this organic matter (the waste we inject into our machine) without burning it, its molecules are broken into carbon and hydrogen, which go out as a gas. This gas is recovered. We separate hydrogen, which becomes our product, and the carbon is used as the energy source for the heat to be produced. As such, it is a self-sustained process: there is no need for external energy except for some electricity to operate mechanical parts and control electronics. Ultimately, this carbon is turned into CO2, which we recover, to capture it into a form where it will not be released into the atmosphere. It is converted into limestone into our system.
Waste360: How many projects have you completed?
Kindler: We are currently finalizing the engineering of our solution, to be ready to deploy it through several commercial projects in the U.S., Caribbean, and Europe. Most of these projects are addressing specific waste streams disposal.
Waste360: Can you describe one standout project of yours?
Kindler: We have been selected by Group ADP in Paris to be part of the consortium to build the hydrogen infrastructure at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. An airport, and this is true for seaports as well, is a closed ecosystem, usually the size of a small city, that needs energy and generates waste. Our solution allows ADP to process that waste on site, and use the hydrogen on site, to power ground equipment. It is a perfect example of circular economy.
Interestingly, ports have a specific problem as they receive waste from foreign countries, which often comes under different sanitary standards. These waste streams are considered as hazardous by most authorities and are quite expensive to process. Our solution, because of its high temperature, is compliant with the U.S. EPA sanitation requirements.
Waste360: Discuss lower emissions associated with hydrogen production.
Kindler: Thermal cracking, or gasification, is significantly less polluting than incineration, as there are no combustion by-products generated. However, there is still a stream of flue gas emitted to the atmosphere. Even cleaner, this flue gas needs to be controlled and monitored.
With our solution, in particular, designed to capture CO2 and turn it into limestone, there is virtually no atmospheric emission. There actually are negative emissions as the CO2 is sequestered.
On the consumption side – when driving the vehicle – biofuels like biogas, biodiesel from corn etc. are producing emissions. A car running on biodiesel will emit CO2, NOx, some carbon monoxide. The difference is that this CO2 does not come from fossil origin, and it will not add more to the atmosphere.
Hydrogen is different as when it is consumed to generate energy, it only emits water. Hydrogen in a car will be used in a fuel cell to produce electricity, to run an electric motor. The only emission from a fuel cell is water.
So, if this hydrogen is grey, the CO2 emissions will be displaced from where the hydrogen is consumed (the car) to where the hydrogen is produced. It is better environmentally, but there will still be more fossil CO2 released in the air.
Blue hydrogen is neutral, it will not add any CO2 as the CO2 has been captured at production phase. Green hydrogen, if produced with 100 percent renewable electricity, will also be neutral.
With our solution, for each kg hydrogen produced, approximately 30 kg CO2 are sequestered.
For perspective, a Toyota Camry emits 2.58 kg CO2 for 10 km driven (about 6.2 miles). A Toyota Mirai, similar size to the Camry but running on hydrogen and a fuel cell, uses 1 kg hydrogen to run 100 km. With our solution, this car’s carbon footprint would be -3kgCO2e per 10 km.
Waste360: How does your tech reduce waste disposal costs?
Kindler: Our solutions provide an opportunity for waste handling companies to add two revenue streams – hydrogen sales and carbon credits – to their activities.
With the additional revenues generated, our systems can pay for themselves, in most cases, in less than five years. More importantly, with most of the energy our systems use coming from the feedstock itself, the risk due to potentially instable energy costs is significantly mitigated. It means the waste industry can offer a better guarantee of price stability in the future, both on waste processing costs to municipalities, and on the hydrogen production side.
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