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Hydrogen research: exploring the full potential of a strategic asset

Hydrogen research: exploring the full potential of a strategic asset

Research is a critical step on the path to a hydrogen society, as it supports the development of cost-effective, high-performance fuel cell systems and sustainable hydrogen technologies for transportation and many other applications. Devoted to researching and developing clean technologies and integrated energy systems to power our daily lives, NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) is also a key player in advancing the hydrogen society by overcoming technical barriers, improving fuel cell manufacturing processes and supporting market deployments. Today, one important avenue explored by NREL is energy system integration, which can leverage hydrogen to achieve a range of energy goals, such as long-term storage of intermittent renewables like solar and wind. Representing two generations of NREL expertise, retired Research Fellow Emeritus John Turner and Hydrogen Research Lead Jennifer Kurtz tell us how they have seen hydrogen technology develop in the past decades and share their vision of hydrogen as a strategic asset for self-sufficient communities. 

NREL, Jennifer Kurtz and John Turner

Retired Research Fellow Emeritus John Turner and Hydrogen Research Lead Jennifer Kurtz of NREL

NREL works on a variety of products, ranging from fuel cells to hydrogen production and delivery. According to you, what is the most promising research field in hydrogen today? 

John : "Electrolysis is an important field. But it just needs to scale up and generate a larger market, so that it can automate manufacturing processes and reduce capital costs."

John: I think the most promising research field continues to be fuel cells, because advanced fuel cells will enable many new hydrogen applications, such as vehicles and large-scale hydrogen storage. In terms of hydrogen production, electrolysis is an important field. But it just needs to scale up and generate a larger market, so that it can automate manufacturing processes and reduce capital costs.

Jennifer: From my perspective, I’m most excited about the integration opportunities. How can we have fully integrated systems that leverage hydrogen to achieve our energy goals? From initiatives like H2@Scale to the Hydrogen Council, there are tremendous opportunities for hydrogen to interface with so many different aspects of our energy sector. For a national lab like ours, this is a terrific research area because we can help connect these technologies with different stakeholders, including government, small and large businesses, fuel cell mobility and industrial gas. 

Fuel cell research, NREL.

When people talk about hydrogen, they mainly talk about FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles). Would you say it’s unfair to the other hydrogen applications you are working on? 

Jennifer: I think it’s just a normal societal response. I think educational initiatives are an important way to share the message of all the ways hydrogen can be impactful and beneficial – and that it’s also a commonly used gas! For most consumers, the car applications resonate clearly because they own cars and understand the challenges. They see and smell buses emitting diesel fumes every day. That is all very tangible for most people, and I think that’s why it gets a lot of traction.

NREL, fuel cell electric vehicle

Are there safety measures in place for the non-vehicle hydrogen applications you are working on?

Jennifer: Safety is a very active research area for us for two main reasons. First, because there are still advances we need to make when it comes to integrating systems and working with users that are not familiar with hydrogen. Second, because we need to conduct our own experiments of hydrogen systems and electrolyzers both effectively and safely. One of our safety principles at NREL is ensuring that cutting-edge research goes hand-in-hand with cutting-edge safety. Our research informs codes and standards, and safety of personnel and stakeholders.

What would you say to someone who doubts the safety of hydrogen? 

John : "Switching to hydrogen will actually bring about greater safety mechanisms for the energy systems we are already using. Hydrogen will be far safer than the current technology we have." 

John: I like to let people know that safety for hydrogen is far better than for anything else we have. To illustrate this point, I like to draw a comparison with gasoline. Imagine going to any city council in the world and telling them you want to truck millions of gallons of a poisonous, carcinogenic, flammable liquid through their city streets, and make sure any kid with a milk jug can pick up a gallon of this poisonous liquid at any time. Most people would react wildly to this proposal. But that’s what we have with gasoline. If you can smell gasoline, you’re being poisoned. When we fill up our tanks today, there are not many safety or feedback pathways in place for the gasoline we put into our cars. Nor are there any detectors for natural gas in our homes, despite houses blowing up every year due to natural gas leaks. 

Switching to hydrogen can fix these safety issues. We will institute many safety mechanisms that we do not have with gasoline. To the question of whether hydrogen will be safe, I say look what we have now. With hydrogen, there will be a sensor and if it detects hydrogen in your house, it will turn off the flow. We could do this for natural gas, but it’s not required. That’s why switching to hydrogen will actually bring about greater safety mechanisms for the energy systems we are already using. Hydrogen will be far safer than the current technology we have. 

Jennifer: I agree. I often tell people that I feel confident driving a fuel cell electric vehicle, and I am comfortable putting my family, the people who are most important to me, in the car. I think that’s a story that really connects with people. 

Many people talk about the hydrogen revolution today. How close is that revolution to happening? 

Jennifer : "Within five years, I think there is also a solid potential to have hydrogen systems that can support grid resiliency with a high penetration of renewables, especially as renewables becoming cheaper."

Jennifer: There are more significant players in this space than we had in the last decade or so. I see a lot of momentum in promoting hydrogen, such as the Hydrogen Council, H2@Scale, new suppliers in the marketplace, the growth potential for electrolyzer manufacturers, the fact that FCEVs can be bought and leased in California and so on. Now we are focused on the science of scaling: instead of small, one-off demonstrations, we’re talking about 1 or 10 MW production of hydrogen via electrolysis. Within five years, I think there is also a solid potential to have hydrogen systems that can support grid resiliency with a high penetration of renewables, especially as renewables becoming cheaper. In California, we are seeing a significant increase in hydrogen demand on the mobility side, just as four new hydrogen liquefier plants were announced in the U.S. Through almost two decades in this industry, these factors are unlike anything I’ve seen before. 

John : "People ask when the hydrogen revolution will start, but it has already started."

John: People ask when the hydrogen revolution will start, but it has already started. How fast it goes depends on the motivation for putting money into it. I think it’s going to take a hard push from politicians in governments to start to implement these technologies. 

Jennifer: I think we’ll see bigger systems in five years, and I think we’ll see hydrogen applications for long-haul trucking of commercial goods. That hydrogen will add substantial demand on top of the 10 million metric tons used in the U.S already. All the research is focused on different aspects around resiliency and durability. But an important concern is cost. So how can we pivot from the government push to the market pull? Forklifts are a great example of how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided government investment and support for fuel cell forklifts. Now major companies like Walmart and Amazon, have fuel cell forklifts, and it doesn’t require the government push. 

Hydrogen also has potential as an energy carrier. Are you working on any projects to improve distribution? 

Jennifer: Distribution is an interesting avenue, especially in terms of switching large swathes of infrastructure over to hydrogen, whether through power-to-gas, hydrogen inside natural gas pipelines or large-scale, low-cost, safe hydrogen storage at bulk. The Hydrogen Council has put together some interesting initiatives, looking not only at hydrogen mobility, but also hydrogen for heating. At NREL, we are working on one research project on biomethanization, where we are using hydrogen and CO2 to produce green methane.

Kevin Harrison and Nancy Dowe standing next to a bioreactor housing microorganisms that will convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methane. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL 47786

Are there any recent innovations that you think showcase the full potential of hydrogen as the energy of the future? 

John: One of the advantages of hydrogen that doesn’t get as much attention is the way you can distribute hydrogen more easily than other gases. Our current gas infrastructure is effectively 10,000 miles long, with tankers moving crude oil and gasoline around the world. With hydrogen and renewables, you can develop localized energy production and storage. Many cities in the US would like to produce their own power, which is possible by combining solar cells or wind turbines with hydrogen as an energy carrier. The technology is ready. Now it’s just a matter of getting the capital cost down. 

Jennifer : "Now we need to integrate renewables and hydrogen if we want to achieve the energy system we’ve envisioned, which is sustainable, clean and locally sourced to decrease its distribution footprint." 

Jennifer: Hydrogen, with an electrolyzer and smart controls, allow us to take the next step towards achieving greater penetration of renewables in our grids, by solving the problem of variability and intermittency with integrated systems. Now we need to integrate renewables and hydrogen if we want to achieve the energy system we’ve envisioned, which is sustainable, clean and locally sourced to decrease its distribution footprint. 

Electrolyzer, NREL

Could hydrogen become a strategic asset for countries in the future, in terms of skills, workforce, infrastructure and research? 

John: Yes, strategic asset is an excellent term. It describes the possibilities of these technologies in general, and how one can put them together for energy independence and independence in other ways. Back in the 90s, I presented a slide showing a house with some wind turbines in the distance, and a shack with an electrolyzer and some hydrogen tanks, to demonstrate how every homeowner could have a small energy system. With these technologies, it is possible to put together a localized energy system based on hydrogen. 

Jennifer : "From a social justice perspective, you can potentially implement a hydrogen systems to eliminate emissions and drive opportunity in disadvantaged communities with significant energy uses, such as ports."

Jennifer: If you have low-cost energy systems, you can do more. Your industry can grow. If you’re a small island, you can become more self-sustainable by securing short-term energy storage through battery and long-term energy storage with hydrogen. You can develop a customizable system for power generation and use. From a social justice perspective, you can potentially implement a hydrogen systems to eliminate emissions and drive opportunity in disadvantaged communities with significant energy uses, such as ports. 

Can you tell us about a hydrogen project you are excited about? 

John: I’m looking forward to large-scale distribution of electrolyzers. I look for large-scale electrolyzer farms to make a comeback. That would be exciting. I’m also looking forward to a bigger push for hydrogen filling stations. 

Jennifer: I’m looking forward to answering how do we get more renewables into our grid, without sacrificing consumer expectations and demand, through the integration of hydrogen systems. How do we secure economically viable domestic resources and grid resiliency, so that future generations can tackle new challenges? It will be exciting to see how these issues progress in the future. I'm also looking forwards to seeing communications initiatives grow so that the message of hydrogen's potential will be shared and more people can become aware and excited.