What Color is Your Hydrogen?

June 8, 2021 |

For an invisible gas, hydrogen seems to come in more colors than boy of crayons. And, you have to learn to weed out the greenwash and the cleanwash. And some of the hogwash.

Take for example the news from North Dakota, where Bakken Energy and Mitsubishi Power Americas, inked a strategic partnership agreement to create a world-class clean hydrogen hub in North Dakota. This hub will be composed of facilities that produce, store, transport and consume clean hydrogen. It will be connected by pipeline to other clean hydrogen hubs being developed throughout North America.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Bakken Midstream Natural Gas renaming itself Bakken Energy, especially if it is getting into the hydrogen business. Except to say that every natural gas producer, everywhere in the world, right now and for decades in the past, has been directly or indirectly in the hydrogen business.

There’s nothing actually new about hydrogen, we’ve been using it in industrial applications since the dawn of chemistry, and for a long, long time, we have generally produced it from natural gas using a technology called steam methane reformation. It’s a critical stem in making ammonia fertilizer, for example.

CH4 + H2O —> CO + 3H2.

In other words, add water (steam) to methane and you get hydrogen and carbon monoxide, also known as syngas. The carbon monoxide is generally combusted to make CO2, since you can’t vent carbon monoxide because it is a fast and deadly poison.

The Colors of Hydrogen

If you are capturing the CO2 and storing it, that’s called blue hydrogen. If you’re venting it, that’s grey hydrogen. 

If you’re making hydrogen from coal, that’s brown hydrogen is you’re using brown lignite coal and black hydrogen if you’re making it from bituminous coal.

None of them are green, but hydrogen made from natural gas is generally described as “clean” hydrogen, and the Bakken partnership is all over that. As they note:

Developing infrastructure for hydrogen enables decarbonization of sectors such as energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing that are targeting net zero carbon emissions. Hydrogen is a carbon-free energy carrier and a carbon-free fuel. The most common forms of clean hydrogen are green and blue. Green hydrogen is created from water using renewable energy and electrolysis. Blue hydrogen is derived from natural gas with the carbon dioxide emissions captured and sequestered. The hub in North Dakota will focus on blue hydrogen production.

Is Blue Hydrogen clean?

But calling blue hydrogen ‘clean’ is sort of like describing a hankie with less snot on it the “clean hankie”.

It’s not Mitsubishi’s initial foray into hydrogen — in fact, they’re deep into new capacity. Mitsubishi Power has been developing a hydrogen hub with Magnum Development in Utah to support the western U.S., and in May signed an agreement to develop hydrogen storage solutions with Texas Brine across the eastern U.S. The company also has numerous hydrogen projects and collaborations across North America.*

What makes this a hydrogen play instead of a natgas partnership? Well, making hydrogen from syngas is an extra step and Bakken Energy, supported by Mitsubishi Power, is currently working with Basin Electric Power Cooperative and its subsidiary Dakota Gasification Company on the potential acquisition and redevelopment of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant located near Beulah, North Dakota. That’s why.

The partners say that redevelopment would make the facility the largest producer of clean hydrogen in North America. The project is in due diligence, and specific details are confidential until that phase is complete.

Now, what exactly is green hydrogen? Well, more or less it’s hydrogen made by water splitting. Or, by using renewable natural gas instead of fossil gas. You can separate hydrogen out of biomass, or the water found in raw biomass (wood is usually around 50 percent water). All of those are forms of green hydrogen.

Unless it’s yellow hydrogen, which is generally and specifically referring to hydrogen made by splitting water and using solar power.

So, there’s turquoise hydrogen, made by pyrolysis using fossil methane, in which we get a hydrogen gas and carbon black, a solid form of C.

And there’s pink hydrogen, in which we split water using nuclear energy.

And, there’s white hydrogen, which is pretty rare and refers to fossil hydrogen which is stored underground as hydrogen and is created primarily in the course of fracking operations. 

Everyone’s happy in the Peace Garden state

Naturally, most people in North Dakota are very happy about the news from Bakken and Mitsubishi. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said, “Blue hydrogen represents a huge opportunity for synergies with our existing energy development, and these are exactly the innovative strategies that will bring North Dakota one step closer to being carbon neutral by 2030 with an all-of-the-above energy approach. We’re grateful that these companies are leading the way to making this the next big industry in North Dakota. The state is committed to supporting the development of exciting value-added projects like this to create jobs, diversify our economy and strengthen U.S. energy security.”

The governor was also effusive about Marathon’s decision to convert its Bakken-adjacent petroleum refinery to renewable diesel, and said that ADM’s recent decision to supply soybean oil to the refinery was a “game-changer” for North Dakota. The governor added that he expected the state’s ag and energy sectors to make some progress on convergence.

Where are they going to put the carbon? Well, good question. Bruce Rastetter and friends are building a carbon dioxide pipeline from Midwestern ethanol plants to stable salt caves in North Dakota, so there’s that. But there are severe limits, especially if CO2 becomes less importance in enhanced oil recovery because of a shift away from petroleum.

Long term, more CO2 utilization is needed, and the US is revving up the CCU — carbon capture and use — R&D engines.

Bakken Energy Founder and Chairman Steven E. Lebow adds, “From the beginning our company has been dedicated to optimal development and stewardship of North Dakota’s energy resources. We are a company of innovators and doers that make things happen in a big way. The State of North Dakota along with Gov. Burgum and Lt. Gov. Sanford have been champions for businesses that want to reimagine and reinvent what is possible for their state. We couldn’t have gotten this far without the unfailing support of this administration.”

Reaction from the Stakeholders

“We believe that clean hydrogen derived from natural gas, with the carbon captured and with its cost advantages, is the best way to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen,” said Mike Hopkins, CEO of Bakken Energy. “Bakken Energy intends to be the largest and lowest cost producer of clean hydrogen in the United States.”

“While still early in the due diligence process, we are excited about the prospect of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant being redeveloped into a world class clean hydrogen complex, and everything that means for the workforce, the region and the whole state,” said Paul Sukut, Chief Executive Officer and General Manager of Basin Electric Power Cooperative.

“We are grateful for Bakken Energy’s commitment to further developing North Dakota’s abundant energy resources. From exploring salt cavern storage for natural gas liquids and hydrogen to next generation power projects, Steve Lebow and the Bakken Energy team are truly on the cutting edge of innovative energy solutions, helping us find new niches for North Dakota’s all-of-the-above energy offering and our unique geological footprint,” Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said. “We thank Bakken Energy and Basin Electric for collaborating to build upon our long story of energy innovation at Dakota Gasification, and we congratulate and welcome the Mitsubishi Power team to North Dakota and look forward to an exciting future of energy innovation together.”

Paul Browning, President and CEO of Mitsubishi Power Americas, said, “We’ve recently announced green hydrogen agreements supported by the Governors of Utah and California, and the City of Los Angeles, and now we’re announcing a blue hydrogen hub with the support of the Governor of North Dakota. This is part of our strategy to bring decarbonized hydrogen throughout North America to customers in the power, transportation and industrial sectors. Together with our partners and customers, we are creating a Change in Power.”

The Bottom Line

It’s not clean, and it’s not green, but it is hydrogen. The world is short on H2, and until we have more green hydrogen, sigh, blue hydrogen is going to rule, and that’s better than grey, or brown, or black, or quite a few colors in the Hydrogen Crayola Box.

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