Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is also chock full of energy. Approximately one kilogram of hydrogen contains as much energy as one gallon of gasoline. Unlocking that energy for human use is perhaps the Holy Grail of a carbon-free future.
While hydrogen is abundant, it rarely exists in simple gas form. Instead, it must be separated from other elements. While the technology to split hydrogen from oxygen in a water molecule has existed for over 100 years, it has historically required much more electricity than to split hydrogen from fossil fuels. Accordingly, today’s hydrogen supply mostly originates from fossil fuels, and hydrogen production is responsible for about 830 metric tons or about 2.3% of worldwide energy-related carbon emissions.
Once you have hydrogen, the carbon impacts of its use are zero as the only byproduct of hydrogen combustion is water. Thus, hydrogen is used to produce numerous carbon-free fuels that operate like fossil fuels, and to drive carbon-free electric generators. It also has non-combustive uses in some industries like fertilizer production and steel manufacturing. The primary advantage of hydrogen over other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, is that it can be stored without batteries and is “dispatchable,” meaning it can be delivered on demand in quantities that meet market needs.
In the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal government committed $8 billion to investment in the development of economically feasible and carbon-free utility scale hydrogen production, and Obsidian Renewables is one Oregon company that has accepted the challenge. Via its Hydrogen Hub, Obsidian proposes to develop two hydrogen electrolyzers and a network of pipelines across eastern Oregon and Washington to produce and deliver hydrogen. Obsidian’s electrolyzers will run on only water and produce oxygen as the only by-product. The electrolzyers will be powered by adjacent solar photovoltaic power plants to keep the entire process carbon-free.
Delivering hydrogen by pipeline will also have numerous carbon reduction benefits. Delivery by pipeline requires no fossil fuels, unlike delivery by rail or truck. The pipelines themselves also provide abundant storage and can easily be extended to new customers.
Initially, Obsidian expects traditional users of hydrogen to be its main customers, such as fertilizer and ammonia manufacturers, clean fuel vehicle fleets and back-up electricity generators that currently rely on diesel fuel. Over time, Obsidian expects users to include military bases, industrial parks and high-demand electricity users who can generate carbon-free electricity on-site and thereby avoid existing choke points on the congested transmission grid. By switching to hydrogen, these users can reduce both their carbon footprint through the direct use of carbon-free hydrogen as a fuel source and their actual footprint by eliminating space-consuming generators and diesel storage facilities.
Obsidian’s application for federal funding was filed in April and it’s expected that award recipients will be selected in late 2023.