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OPINION: Taking a Look at 5 Opportunities in a Hydrogen Economy

By Angel Wileman

The United States and many other countries have set goals to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner. To achieve this end, entire economies will need to be decarbonized. 

Some of the largest carbon contributors are the power generation, transportation, residential gas and manufacturing industries. For more than a century, petroleum products have fueled these activities, and extensive capital has been invested worldwide to build up petroleum-based processes and infrastructure.  

Upending the fossil fuels industry and redesigning the power grid in one fell swoop would be cost-prohibitive. An alternative, such as transitioning to hydrogen gas that works with existing infrastructure, could offer a more natural progression away from carbon-based fuels. 

Consider power generation. Across the U.S., 61% of electricity is generated from natural gas and coal-fired power plants. In comparison, only 20% of our power is generated by renewables. A 10-year industry-wide pivot to renewable electricity generation is estimated to cost more than $4.5 trillion dollars, including a $32,000 price tag for individual households. 

Incrementally transitioning to alternative fuels using existing infrastructure offers distinct advantages. For example, the power generation industry could begin blending small quantities of hydrogen gas into its natural gas pipelines within the next few years. This blended gas can be used at power plants to create electricity, or it can be supplied to residential homes for heating and cooking. The automotive industry has taken similar steps by blending hydrogen into diesel and natural gas engines to decarbonize large industrial vehicles. 

Even these incremental changes in processes create technology challenges to be overcome in transitioning toward net-zero carbon emissions. Hydrogen gas, the fuel discussed in this article, presents challenges with high generation costs, safety and material compatibility. 

Transitioning to a hydrogen economy will require multidisciplinary approaches and broad expertise, particular strengths available at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). SwRI engineers and scientists are collaborating across multiple disciplines, looking at the opportunities and obstacles associated with this potentially clean energy source.  

For example, specialists from the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division are studying hydrogen generation and safety. Teams from the Mechanical Engineering Division are looking at distribution as well as how hydrogen could be used for power generation. And Powertrain Engineering Division specialists are examining different techniques for using hydrogen in transportation applications.  

SwRI is leveraging multidisciplinary approaches, working with U.S. government agencies and industrial partners to address technology challenges to move us closer to a carbon-neutral future. 

Wileman is the manager of the Thermofluids Section, Mechanical Engineering Division, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) 

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