Researchers make a compelling case for clean hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen holds great promise as a greener form of fuel because it is a zero-emission fuel when burned with oxygen. The problem is that it’s costly to produce and the way that it’s currently produced creates greenhouse gas emissions.

New research out of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University offers a solution. The team – PhD student Nader El-Taweel, postdoctoral visiting scholar Hadi Khani and professor and principal investigator Hany Farag from the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science – has proposed a new model to lower the price of hydrogen production and increase profitability.

This work will be of great interest to a variety of stakeholders: environmentalists, government policy-makers, investors and consumers. The impact could be far reaching.

Farag underscores the importance of this research: “What we’re doing is presenting the engineering tools that can be utilized by investors, government and stakeholders as to how you can optimally design the infrastructure to produce and deliver economical, green hydrogen.”

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada in partnership with Hydrogenics Inc. The results were published in IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid (2018).

Hydrogen fuel can be created without greenhouse gas emissions

The potential for hydrogen energy is tremendous, particularly in the transportation sector. When studying greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, this sector (which is, today, dependent on fossil fuel) accounts for 24 per cent – more than double that of heavy industry, and almost on par with oil and gas. For this reason, government has been motivated to look into the transportation sector.

Hydrogen holds great promise as a greener type of fuel; meanwhile, the transportation sector accounts for 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada (2015)

How is “green” hydrogen production possible?

Hydrogen can be made in various ways. The well-established method is steam forming, a process where methane from natural gas is heated, with steam, to produce a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This has a high greenhouse gas emission.

Another way to create hydrogen is electrolysis, a technique that uses a direct electric current to drive a chemical reaction. Electricity could be taken from the grid or from green energy production: wind and solar generation. This way of producing “clean hydrogen” does not result in greenhouse gas emissions and so it could eliminate almost 25 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

However, creating green hydrogen is not as easy as it sounds. “There’s limited hydrogen infrastructure in existence today and transporting hydrogen fuel is costly because it needs to be moved via high-pressure trailer tubes or to be liquefied prior to transportation,” El-Taweel explains.

Study has policy application baked into objectives

Left to right: Nader El-Taweel, Hadi Khani and Hany Farag
From left: Nader El-Taweel, Hadi Khani and Hany Farag

The research trio sought to investigate green hydrogen production and determine how it could be easier to make and store, and how it could be cost-effective.

Real-world application was baked into the research from the start: “We sought to set up the policy for stakeholders and decision-makers to make hydrogen fuelling stations possible in the near future,” El-Taweel explains.

The researchers sought to co-ordinate hydrogen fuelling stations that would accomplish the following:

  • generate hydrogen on-site, saving the costly transportation of the fuel;
  • avoid any negative impact on the utility grid by securing electricity at cost-effective off-times;
  • enhance the resiliency of power grids through provision of ancillary services to grid operators;
  • increase the hydrogen stations’ profit via revenue generation from ancillary services provision;
  • facilitate a competitive, not-too-costly price for hydrogen fuel, which would ensure the profitability of the new fuelling stations, while securing the customers’ satisfaction; and
  • fulfill the demand for hydrogen fuel in the transportation sector.

Things that would determine the profitability of hydrogen stations

The goal is to optimize the price of hydrogen fuel for hydrogen station owners’ profit margins, while maintaining customer satisfaction about pricing
The goal is to optimize the price of hydrogen fuel for hydrogen station owners’ profit margins, while maintaining customer satisfaction about pricing

El-Taweel elaborates profitability: “Key factors affecting the profitability of these stations are efficient sizing for hydrogen production and storage units, and the ability to make the best estimations of the most cost-effective times to purchase electricity to generate and store hydrogen,” he explains.

If hydrogen producers could work with the power company and defer their consumption of electricity to a time when it’s not expensive (night time for example), then this would mean that the production of hydrogen would be cheaper and this would add to the profit for hydrogen producers.

El-Taweel emphasizes, again, that the goal is to optimize the price of hydrogen fuel to benefit the bottom line for hydrogen station owners, while keeping prices down for customers. “We need to find the sweet spot,” El-Taweel sums up.

Findings are promising for hydrogen fuel production, if managed properly

The researchers concluded that there’s a potential to have distributed on-site hydrogen generation fuelling stations to meet the transportation hydrogen demand, if they’re properly managed.

The team calculated the pricing:

  • Hydrogen fuel produced via electrolysis can be priced between $5 and $6 per kilogram.
  • Hydrogen fuelling stations, using the power grid, would decrease the price of hydrogen by appropriately $1 per kilogram.

“Comparing hydrogen-fuelled cars to electric cars, the former could be equally economical if the right infrastructure were established,” Khani emphasizes.

If the infrastructure were created, hydrogen-fueled cars could be economical
If the infrastructure were created, hydrogen-fuelled cars could be economical

Impact on Canadian economy could be profound

The growing presence of hydrogen stations will have a ripple effect, the researchers believe. It will spur people to buy hydrogen-powered vehicles for three reasons:

  1. these new vehicles are similar to gas-powered vehicles in terms of distance range;
  2. they’re greener; and
  3. they could have lower operation and maintenance costs.

In fact, this interest in hydrogen-fuelled vehicles would create a demand for more of these vehicles, which would reduce the price of their production.

This could mean a big win for the environment, investors, the government, customers and station owners.

To read the article “Hydrogen Storage Optimal Scheduling for Fuel Supply and Capacity-Based Demand Response Program under Dynamic Hydrogen Pricing” in IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, visit the website. To read more about Farag, visit his faculty profile page.  To learn more about El-Taweel and Khani, visit the Smart Grid Research Lab website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,