July 25, 2006 | General

Accelerating Commercialization Of Renewable Hydrogen Technologies

BioCycle July 2006, Vol. 47, No. 7, p. 41
Minnesota lays the groundwork for a renewable hydrogen industry ready to sell to other markets as demand materializes.
Linda Limback

HYDROGEN and fuel cells have the potential to solve several major challenges that relate to energy and economics. But to attain hydrogen’s full benefits, it must be produced using sustainable, renewable resources and methods.
Other states have focused on hydrogen production from coal, but few have targeted renewable techniques, thus providing Minnesota with a window of opportunity to advance renewable hydrogen production methods. Local production of hydrogen using Minnesota resources has the potential to stimulate job creation and economic development, offer a prudent hedge against volatile energy prices and mitigate negative impacts of climate change. The success of Minnesota’s renewable energy industry places it in a competitively advantageous position to develop hydrogen from renewable feedstock. With strategic policy targeted at the development of cost-effective processes to produce hydrogen and other products from renewable fuels, Minnesota can translate its competitive edge into the expansion of its renewable fuels industry. Minnesota has the opportunity to spawn the emergence of a new homegrown industry based on the production of renewable products and hydrogen.
The 2005 Minnesota legislature requested that the Minnesota Department of Commerce, “in consultation with appropriate representatives from state agencies, local governments, universities, businesses, and other interested parties,… report back to the legislature by November 1, 2005, and every two years thereafter, with a slate of proposed pilot projects that contribute to realizing Minnesota’s hydrogen economy goal as set forth in section 216B.013.” That goal, enacted in 2003, states “It is a goal of this state that Minnesota move to hydrogen as an increasing source of energy for its electrical power, heating, and transportation needs.”
The legislature also requested that the Department of Commerce consider the following nonexclusive list of priorities in developing the proposed slate of pilot projects: Demonstrate “bridge” technologies such as hybrid-electric, off-road, and fleet vehicles running on hydrogen or fuels blended with hydrogen; Develop cost-competitive, on-site hydrogen production technologies; Demonstrate nonvehicle applications for hydrogen; Improve the cost and efficiency of hydrogen from renewable energy sources; and Improve the cost and efficiency of hydrogen production using direct solar energy without electricity generation as an intermediate step. For all demonstrations, individual system components of the technology must meet commercial performance standards and systems modeling must be completed to predict commercial performance, risk, and synergies.
In addition, the proposed pilots should meet as many of the following criteria as possible: Advance energy security; Capitalize on the state’s native resources; Result in economically competitive infrastructure being put in place; Be located where it will link well with existing and related projects and be accessible to the public, now or in the future; Demonstrate multiple, integrated aspects of hydrogen infrastructure; Include an explicit public education and awareness component; Be scalable to respond to changing circumstances and market demands; Draw on firms and expertise within the state where possible; Include an assessment of its economic, environmental, and social impact and; Serve other needs beyond hydrogen development.
The native and renewable resources that currently offer the best potential for Minnesota investment are solar, wind and biomass. There are some interesting opportunities and issues related to the legislative criteria as they apply to these resources.
Availability of wind power varies across the United States. Areas with the best wind resources include portions of North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Wisconsin, and Oregon. Roughly six percent of the contiguous U.S. land area has sufficient wind resources for wind turbines. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the potential electric power from these sufficient wind areas is surprisingly large. If developed, wind energy has the potential to supply more than one and a half times the current electricity consumption of the United States. Technology under development today will be capable of producing electricity economically from areas in many regions of the country. Minnesota is one of the leaders in developing its wind energy resource and, according to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Minnesota has the potential to generate 657 billion kWh.
But wind is intermittent. Storage is needed to realize its full potential. Configuring wind with an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen and coupling the system with a fuel cell or generator set offers the potential to store and dispatch wind power. Projects that test storage strategies for wind systems need to be developed and their efficiencies measured before the manufacturing sector can begin the level of production that will bring costs down.
The University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center has plans to establish a full-scale wind-to-hydrogen system at the Morris campus, and use the hydrogen to produce value-added products in addition to fuel. When built, this system would also demonstrate hydrogen’s value as a storage medium for excess wind power.
Biomass power is the second largest source of renewable electricity in the U. S. (after hydroelectric power), making up 19 percent of the total renewable electricity, or 76 percent of the nonhydro renewable electricity. Recent advances in biomass technologies provide the means to convert the biomass to hydrogen, which can then be used as a fuel or as a component in products such as ammonia-based fertilizers. Anaerobic digestion – appropriate for food processing, municipal wastewater treatment sludge, and manure – is also part of the biomass landscape. Digesters that produce hydrogen as one of their phases are currently commercially available and methane, itself, can be reformed into hydrogen.
A recent report from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory calculates that there are enough agricultural residues in Minnesota that, if collected and fed to the most efficient conversion technologies available, could produce over 70 percent of the total electricity needed in the state. If that same residue was converted into renewable hydrogen and used in a fuel cell, the hydrogen could replace up to 65 percent of gasoline that Minnesota currently uses. Thanks to state government leadership, energy from wind and ethanol is at or near market-par with nonrenewable sources of energy today. Claiming the value from agricultural residue can be another near-term success, while special energy crops may be part of Minnesota’s future landscape.
Minnesota has many industrial processors in the ethanol, biofuels, food processing and paper industries that are prime candidates for hydrogen production using the biorefining concept. Hydrogen production to offset purchased energy or as a value-added product offers great potential for these sites because waste feedstock is readily available. Food processing that involves hydrogenation also offers a particularly attractive opportunity because such plants have an immediate use for the hydrogen that they could produce.
Ethanol – Dr. Lanny Schmidt, in the University of Minnesota’s Chemical Engineering and Material Science Department, has realized a major breakthrough in the use of a Rhodium-Cerium catalyst for potentially cost competitive hydrogen production from ethanol. The technology is ready for its next phase of development, a scaled up demonstration.
Biodiesel – Virent Energy Systems, Inc. from Wisconsin has contacted Minnesota and Iowa biodiesel plants to obtain waste glycerol for conversion to syngas and hydrogen. A project placing this conversion technology at a Minnesota facility would demonstrate leadership in two important areas: biodiesel and renewable hydrogen.
Wood And Crop Waste – A gasification plant planned for the University of Minnesota at Morris will use crop waste (corn stover) to produce heat, electricity, syngas and/or hydrogen. The University of Minnesota Duluth’s Coleraine Lab has obtained a grant to develop a gasification project that will convert wood waste to hydrogen.
Manure – Haubenschild Dairy, near Cambridge, recently installed a reformer to convert biogas from an anaerobic manure digester into methane and ultimately into hydrogen for use in a proton electron membrane (PEM) fuel cell.
Biomass Densification – The Center for BioRefining at the University of Minnesota has developed a biomass/hydrolysis process that converts waste biomass, such as corn stover, into bio-oil, which can be used to make polymers for products and hydrogen-rich gas.
Hydrogen end-use applications have vastly different infrastructure development needs. Most portable, micro, and stationary applications use existing infrastructure with little need for adaptation and at low access costs. Transportation applications, on the other hand, call for new kinds of distribution networks and fueling stations, even if the fuel is a hydrogen blend. Without federal funding, the infrastructure costs associated with hydrogen transportation applications pose barriers to developing hydrogen vehicle markets and to developing demonstration projects involving fuel cell vehicles. Portable and stationary applications do not carry the high associated infrastructure costs or the risks associated with such costs.
Energy systems have three main components: production, distribution, and the final end use. In addition, systems frequently involve an energy storage component that allows the energy to be dispatched on demand. There are many other components that make up the entire life cycle of renewable energy systems. In biomass systems, for example, these components could include growing, harvesting and preprocessing feedstock, as well as the disposal of waste products. The components of an integrated hydrogen energy system examined in this report are limited to the processes, technologies and system requirements from the production of renewable hydrogen to the end use application.
A major barrier to the development of a renewable hydrogen industry is the lack of new hydrogen end use markets. Today hydrogen is used primarily as a coolant for utilities and in chemical and other industrial processes. Its use as an energy carrier is very limited. Demand for hydrogen must grow in order to spawn new production facilities and create the efficiencies that will bring costs down. Currently there are a very limited number of energy technologies – such as fuel cells – that require the use of hydrogen, and those technologies are still in a stage of relative infancy.
Markets for Minnesota’s renewable hydrogen must be developed to create demand. Scientists at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) have a potential solution. They are working on a demonstration project to produce hydrogen from wind, which they intend to expand to produce anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. Investments in such technologies and processes to cost-competitively produce fertilizers, hydrogenated oils and other marketable products from renewable hydrogen offer Minnesota a potential to bring renewable products to market today – without waiting for hydrogen energy technologies to proliferate. If Minnesota can develop renewable hydrogen-based products and convert its locally produced power generators and engines to run on renewable hydrogen and blends, a renewable hydrogen industry will emerge, ready to sell to other energy markets when demand materializes.
With these priorities, criteria, and issues taken into consideration, the Minnesota Department of Commerce began a public process to gather project ideas that address the legislative criteria. The Department issued a public request for project ideas and received 50 project submissions from 25 different entities in response to that request. This process helped the Department identify a realistic range of demonstration project concepts and assess their fit and value in moving the state toward its goal of increasing hydrogen’s use in the state.
The first slate of recommended pilot projects concentrates on emerging technologies that offer near term commercial potential and provide opportunities to influence the state’s economic performance. It focuses on projects that have demonstrated proof of concept, are entering their precommercial stages of development, and will likely be developed in Minnesota, by or in partnership with Minnesota institutions or businesses that have an economic stake in their success. It includes the following list of renewable hydrogen production processes and end use applications. Projects from any of the production processes can be mixed and matched with ones from the end-use categories to create strategically important projects that would help speed commercialization and develop a hydrogen technology economy in Minnesota.
The recommended renewable hydrogen production processes are:
Wind to Hydrogen by Electrolysis – Assure adequate funding for the University of Minnesota WCROC wind to hydrogen demonstration and research on the effectiveness of storing hydrogen and using that hydrogen to produce electricity during periods of low wind.
Solar to Hydrogen by Electrolysis – Weatherize a structure for the University of Minnesota Architecture building to house the University’s solar to hydrogen demonstration project and convert it into a year-round, teaching, research and public demonstration facility.
Catalytic Conversion of Water-Rich Ethanol to Hydrogen from an Autothermal Reforming Process – Scale up to monitor, test and verify Dr. Lanny Schmidt’s process for producing hydrogen or hydrogen-rich gases from ethanol.
Hydrogen from Biodiesel By-Product – Demonstrate that hydrogen can be produced using low valued raw glycerol or other sugar rich waste that are by-products of various food processing plants.
Hydrogen from the Gasification of Wood, Crop, Food or Other Biomass Waste – Gasification of residual biomass to produce hydrogen.
Purified Biogas from Anaerobic Digestion – Complete the development of a simple process for purifying methane to be reformed into hydrogen in a fuel cell.
The priority projects that demonstrate hydrogen end uses revolve around Fuel Blended Hydrogen. Blending hydrogen with methane (or natural gas) represents a near-term opportunity to introduce hydrogen into the nation’s fuel mix, typically reducing emissions, improving turbine or engine performance, and creating a near-term market for renewable hydrogen. They include these approaches:
Gas Turbines – Burning a mixture of 12 percent hydrogen and 88 percent natural gas, with water injection to limit NOx to 25 ppmv.
Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) – Blending five to 30 percent hydrogen with methane-fueled spark-ignited ICE generators.
Methane/Syngas Powered Fuel Cells – Methane produced through the anaerobic digestion of organic matter, particularly as produced from manure or by sewage treatments plants, can be reformed or filtered to obtain hydrogen.
Wind to Fuel Cell Storage – Produce hydrogen from wind for use in a fuel cell or turbine when electricity demand exceeds the wind turbine’s capacity to produce.
As just noted, one value-added product from hydrogen is anhydrous ammonia, which could use the renewable hydrogen from one of the hydrogen production demonstrations. In terms of bringing products to market, the University of Minnesota Diesel Research Center, is being equipped with instruments needed for the testing of biofuels, hydrogen engines and power systems to meet EPA specifications.
The first slate of pilot projects to contribute in the near term to realizing Minnesota’s hydrogen economy are projects that would combine one of the above described hydrogen production processes with an appropriate end use product or power generation technology, also from the recommended list, into an integrated hydrogen energy system. The selected production method and end-use application would determine the other systems components, such as the need and specifications for storage, transport, distribution and balance of systems components. Most of the above combinations of production processes and end use applications are worthy pilot projects for Minnesota to pursue. Because costs may be prohibitive, a selection process may be needed.
Linda Limback is Research Coordinator with the State Energy Office in the Minnesota Department of Commerce based in St. Paul. Much of the material presented here was included in a report to the state legislature prepared by the Minnesota Department of Commerce earlier this year entitled: “Strategic Demonstration Projects to Accelerate the Commercialization of Renewable Hydrogen and Related Technologies.”

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