Air Liquide, an international industrial gas company, projects their new hydrogen plant in North Las Vegas will finish construction in November of this year. Although hydrogen production plants have been in existence for years, mostly for industrial and refinery purposes, Air Liquide’s plant will be the first of its kind to direct its hydrogen gas toward the transportation fuel market.
“[Hydrogen production] is very much built around the industrial use of hydrogen: things like refineries, electronics, agricultural products and not really as an energy vector or transportation fuel,” said Dave Edwards, director and advocate for hydrogen energy at Air Liquide. “The project in Nevada is our first large-scale investment specifically for these new markets in the US. This hydrogen is not for the traditional industrial markets, but rather for the mobility and transportation fuel market that is mostly on the west coast.”
The hydrogen plant is expected to become operational by early 2022, producing hydrogen that will serve as fuel for light and heavy-duty vehicles in the transportation sector. When hydrogen gas is used as a fuel, its output of water vapor means its carbon-emissions are at zero. But in order to produce hydrogen as a gas, these plants traditionally use natural gas in a steam-methane process to produce it.
While this natural gas steam-methane process still leaves a carbon footprint, its plant-emissions are as much as 50 percent less compared to other plants using traditional sources of non-renewable energy. The new Air Liquide plant, however, will have the technology and flexibility in place to further reduce their carbon emissions at the plant, while still producing its hydrogen gas.
“Even though hydrogen as a fuel is considerably better than gasoline or diesel, [its production process] still has an environmental footprint that needs to be addressed,” Edwards said. “Our first investment in North Las Vegas is to use similar technology, but we have the ability to displace the natural gas in the process with renewable natural gas and reduce the carbon footprint of our feedstock.”
The sources of renewable natural gas that Air Liquide plans to utilize for its plant on day one include the likes of biogas, landfill gas and waste-water treatment gas. By using these forms of renewable gas in place of natural gas in the steam-methane process, the carbon emissions of the plant can be further driven down toward zero and even a net negative carbon footprint over the plant’s lifetime.
This aligns with Air Liquide’s goal of using existing technologies that reduce carbon emissions, while also quickly getting this hydrogen gas to market. While California is the largest and only hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (HFCV) market in the country at the moment, the state has been experiencing a hydrogen shortage that has hampered the market’s growth.
According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, there are roughly over 10,000 HFCVs on the roads in the US, with only 46 hydrogen fuel stations fully operational in California.
“There is a shortage of hydrogen at [existing fueling] stations because we’ve been really stretching the hydrogen supply chain that already exists,” Edwards said. “But with these new investments, the North Las Vegas plant will produce enough hydrogen for about 40,000 vehicles. There’s only 10,000 on the road today, so all of a sudden we will have the capacity to [fuel] four times as many cars that are on the road today.”
The shortage has resulted from using the existing hydrogen production infrastructure, traditional plants generating hydrogen for industrial purposes like refineries, to concurrently feed the developing transportation fuel market. Consequently, the coming launch of Air Liquide’s plant operations could not be coming at a more critical time, according to Roxana Bekemohammadi, executive director of the Western States Hydrogen Alliance.
“The hydrogen shortage in California has created a bit of uncertainty for some of these early adopters of fuel cell electric vehicles and actually slowed down the progress of fuel cell electric vehicles in California, which has been really tough on the automakers who took a big leap in that direction,” Bekemohammadi said. “So Nevada is kind of coming in and saving the day, definitely for California policymakers by enabling low-cost, renewable hydrogen production that we can utilize to fuel fleets across the west and probably the Midwest, because there’s no other major facility like this.”
While the hydrogen produced at the Air Liquide plant will initially be in a gaseous form, the hydrogen will then be subjected to cryogenic, or below-freezing, temperatures so it can be transported to the fueling stations in California.
“After creating hydrogen gas, they’re going to liquefy it by making it super cold so that it turns from gaseous into a liquid form at -252° Celsius or -423° Fahrenheit,” Bekemohammadi said. “Putting [hydrogen] in liquid form is really the most cost-effective and environmentally-effective way of moving it around. It’s the most energy-dense way of transporting fuel and that’s why it’s so hard to replace the liquid fuels that we are familiar with, like gasoline and diesel.”
So by liquifying the hydrogen, greater amounts of hydrogen can be transported in a single truck to these fueling stations. Once the liquified hydrogen is delivered and stored at the fueling stations, it will then be dispensed by drivers into their vehicles in its original gaseous form, not unlike the traditional fueling methods at gas stations across the country.
So while the more commonly-known battery electric vehicles (EVs) store and output energy internal to its battery, HFCVs store and output energy externally, more like traditional gas or diesel vehicles.
Thus, aside from EVs, HFCVs provide another zero-emission, carbon-free transportation alternative for drivers. But while EVs and HFCVs can often be perceived as competing for the same market, they’re really two complementary solutions for a carbon-free transportation sector.
“They’re really not adversaries because they serve different needs,” Edwards said. “[EVs] are hugely efficient and very convenient to charge at home, so if you have a lifestyle that allows you to adopt a battery electric vehicle, you absolutely should do that. But if you don’t have access to charging and you still want to be zero-emission, [HFCVs] might provide an option for you. If you drive very long distances and don’t want to sit around charging on all of your trips, fuel cells may provide that for you.”
Therefore, while EVs might better suit a homeowner with a charging port at their home, HFCVs might better suit the subset of drivers that don’t have reliable access to convenient charging stations, like those living in apartment complexes.
“You can pull into a hydrogen fueling station and refill in three to five minutes and that gives you 400-500 miles of driving range, so it’s very similar to your behavior with a gasoline vehicle that can drive for a few days to a few weeks, depending on your daily usage,” Edwards said. “So instead of an apartment complex needing 500 [EV] chargers for all of the apartments in that building, the corner gasoline station with a single hydrogen pump can handle all of those same needs. So depending on the community and depending on the consumer, there’s a lot of options that [EVs and HFCVs] bring.”
An added benefit of hydrogen as a fuel source, however, comes with the potential it has for more heavy-duty transportation vehicles in the shipping and freight sectors.
“Fuel cells actually scale very nicely and get better and better, the bigger they get,” Edwards said. “Batteries get very heavy and driving distances get shorter and shorter for bigger vehicles. [HFCVs] as larger vehicles can still have very quick fueling times, without the penalty of added battery weight so they can still carry their full cargo and drive their full range. So if you think about any of the applications where vehicles are on the road a lot, need to refuel quickly and move cargo, fuel cells will be a good solution complementary to batteries.”
As Bekemohammadi explains, this is all due to the “volumetric energy density” of hydrogen. In other words, hydrogen can have a higher energy-capacity despite smaller volumes of battery space.
“Especially when we’re talking about freight, whether it be ships, trucks, locomotives or even planes, they’re moving a lot of payload and you need that much more energy to move it,” Bekemohammadi said. “So if you’re adding a lot more weight, that means you have to have that much more energy to move it. So to counteract the payload the freight is moving, it just becomes an issue of volume, and hydrogen is what’s going to give you that extra 300 miles or enough power to move 40,000 pounds.”
Despite the advantage of hydrogen for heavy-duty shipping and freight purposes, both Edwards and Bekemohammadi continue to stress that EVs and HFCVs are not necessarily competitors, but two different means to an end of a carbon-free transportation sector.
“There’s been some public statements that get a lot of press about how fuel cells shouldn’t be done and that batteries can do everything,” Edwards said. “We’re also finding that battery electrics were developed earlier than the fuel cells, so they were on the market first and they have a larger market share and more visibility. As a result, people tend to disregard the fuel cell because it’s a few years behind in its development, although [HFCVs] are very well-established now. But it all adds together that people make a presumption that they’re competitive technologies, as opposed to collaborative solutions.”
“The only way that we can maximize all of our renewables is by really understanding the synergies between them,” Bekemohammadi said. “It’s going to take every single different kind of fuel battery to play a role in a carbon-free transportation sector. Both are electrochemical devices, but sometimes when you need that burst in power, you use the batteries. But if we need that long-sustained power, use the hydrogen fuel cell, there’s something beautiful and synergistic about the two if they were not pitted against each other.”
By having multiple renewable energy resources at our disposal in the transportation sector, the United States will also be less vulnerable to a compromised energy system, as evidenced with the recent cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline and the subsequent widespread panic-purchase of gasoline, causing shortages.
“[Colonial Pipeline’s hacking] emphasizes more than ever to have redundancy built into the system and we can’t just have one backup plan, we have to have multiple,” Bekemohammadi said. “Texas’ [power grid failure], Hurricane Sandy and California’s electricity shutdown during wildfires have all taught us that. We need to make our systems more robust and this is probably going to be the very beginning of hydrogen as another backup fuel. We need to develop our energy and security policies based on technology, engineering and redundancy to ensure we have a sustainable form of power because one way or another, if it goes down or if any of your renewables go up, you’re going back on coal, crude oil or natural gas. If we don’t take [diversification and redundancy] into consideration, we’ll be vulnerable.”
Thus, the onboarding of the Air Liquide plant in Las Vegas will be seen as a small but significant step forward in diversifying and decarbonizing the transportation sector, by making HFCVs more accessible.
“In North Las Vegas, [the hydrogen produced will be] enough to support 40,000 vehicles, but we really need 400,000, then 44 million and then 400 million,” Edwards said. “The numbers that we need are the problem and the size of the problem [of decarbonizing the transportation sector] is huge. But this is the first, small step in a path that allows us to start that transformation and become a model for how an investment like this allows for that renewable fuel to develop.”
“Essentially, we cannot sell a vehicle without fuel and Air Liquide will be able to give everybody [hydrogen fuel] pricing,” Bekemohammadi said. “That’s a significant development that will help snowball what we need to happen, because looking at any of these more commercial applications, it’s not about capital costs. It’s all about operating costs because when you’re consuming so much fuel, the cost of the fuel is what’s going to matter most and Air Liquide is making it feasible for us to move in that direction and we’ll be able to see the air quality around those major freight corridors significantly improve.”
So as the Air Liquide plant sets its sights on launching operations by early next year, Nevada has found itself at the center of a blossoming renewable energy industry.
“Nevada clearly has a strategy to be part of the energy transition and they recognize that they have a place to play with zero-emission energy production, with options for wind and solar,” Edwards said. “Nevada is very favorable toward bringing new industries in, especially these new energy markets. The biggest reason we chose Nevada, even though California is our primary market, is because this [plant] is the first one and we need to get to market very quickly and without a doubt working with Nevada enabled us to do that more quickly than we might have been able to do at some other locations.”
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.