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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Green hydrogen production could benefit from Oregon State research

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Courtesy of Washington State Senate
Refueling a vehicle at a hydrogen gas pump could be a familiar, speedy routine akin to how consumers refuel gasoline-powered cars today.

Costs could go down for a carbon-free energy resource if researchers' findings translate into production methods.

Researchers at Oregon State University say they have developed a breakthrough that could make hydrogen energy more affordable.

Hydrogen has for years been in the clean-energy conversation, along with solar panels, electric vehicles and wind turbines. One of hydrogen’s big advantages is that it can store carbon-free energy for when it’s needed the most.

But clean hydrogen has yet to take off, in part because of its high production costs — a barrier that Oregon State’s new research has the potential to help overcome. The research uses a catalyst — a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without changing itself permanently — to make green hydrogen production more affordable and accessible, said Zhenxing Feng, a chemical engineering professor at OSU who led the research.

“We actually improved its efficiency by almost 1,000 times better than commercial standards,” said Feng, who is with the faculty of the OSU College of Engineering.

Feng said this new technique produces cleaner hydrogen than does the traditional method, which uses natural gas. Most of the hydrogen used in Oregon is imported, primarily for use in fertilizer production and semiconductor manufacturing, according to the Oregon Department of Energy.

There’s a push underway to make Oregon a hub for renewable hydrogen production. The Legislature this year directed the Oregon Department of Energy to study the state’s potential for producing and using renewable hydrogen.

Oregon Department of Energy Senior Policy Analyst Rebecca Smith said more affordable hydrogen could help Oregon transition current industries that are already using it, as well as expand its use by industries that aren’t using renewable energy.

“Those could include steel making, cement, heavy-duty transportation like long-haul trucks — even transit buses could be an early candidate for renewable hydrogen,” she said.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles could be among the sectors with a lot to gain from developments like Oregon State’s. According to the 2020 Biennial Energy Report, there is only one hydrogen powered car registered in Oregon. Trends show that medium- to heavy-duty trucks could be the first vehicles in the state to begin transitioning to hydrogen. But access to fueling stations remains a barrier. There are currently no fueling stations in Oregon according to the report.

The nation’s only hydrogen refueling network is in California, Smith said. And based on information from a few years ago, costs were high, averaging $16.50 per kilogram for retail customers.

Smith said if the cost of renewable hydrogen drops, it will create a bigger market to introduce more hydrogen cars in the state and create more options for drivers.

“Affordable, renewable hydrogen can be a really important tool for Oregon and for the region to meet our climate goals,” she said. “It all comes down to what the eventual costs are going to be and what the trade offs are and frankly which trade offs were most comfortable with the state.”

Feng and his research team’s findings were published in Science Advances and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Feng said he is currently working with a company on initial steps that could eventually lead to larger-scale production and retail distribution of hydrogen.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting