It may seem like a vision of the future: Turning methane, one of the biggest greenhouse gas villains, into a renewable energy source to fight climate change. For scientists, working at the cutting-edge of development, however, this is no longer science fiction but science fact.
The magic ingredient, it turns out, is hydrogen.
Most activists regard methane (CH4) as a fossil fuel and although the United States, for one, has curbed its carbon emissions by switching from coal to natural gas (which is primarily methane), concern about emissions of this gas is literally sky-high.
Methane is responsible for 23% of all global warming – a fact appreciated by Dr. Bryan Wilson, director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University, whose labs are heavily involved in research on CH4 and hydrogen.
”On a 20-year basis, methane is over 81 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and on a hundred-year basis, it’s about 31 times as potent. So if you are leaking more than a couple percent of the natural gas, then you may offset a lot of the benefits from switching coal power to gas”, he said.
At the same time, Dr. Wilson, who is a consultant to the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, (ARPA-E), added that the case can be made that methane, which primarily comes from mines, is humankind’s most renewable fuel.
This is because almost any organic substance can be converted into methane, and through a natural process. ”It happened in the guts of animals when they produce methane, it happens in wastewater treatment plants, it happens in landfills,” he said, speaking during a virtual briefing on combating climate change organized by the US State Department for foreign journalists.
“But there’s another pathway to renewable methane, and that’s from hydrogen, which is getting a lot of focus as a fuel. But it’s a fuel that we can manufacture by taking renewable electricity and using it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. And then we can use that hydrogen directly in things like fuel cells or we can blend it with natural gas to improve the performance of the natural gas. Additionally, when hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide through a catalyst, we can produce methane. So, we can use wind energy to make renewable methane or to make renewable natural gas,” he added.
To these applications is yet another curious usage of hydrogen in wastewater treatment facilities, which may seem like a non-sequitur, according to Associate Professor Neal Sullivan of Colorado School of Mines and director of the Colorado Fuel Cell Centre.
How this works is using hydrogen fuel cells to generate methane and carbon dioxide to generate electricity at the wastewater treatment plant. “We are talking about a good amount of 10 megawatts at a plant just continuously generating electricity that would otherwise be wasted,” he said.
Scientists said that there is increased research on using hydrogen itself as a clean energy source to be used on a planetary scale, even though schemes to use it to power mass transit systems such as buses have not yet taken off for lack of large-scale hydrogen production facilities.
According to Dr. Sullivan, the one place where hydrogen cells are being used on a wide scale are at Amazon’s warehousing facilities, where forklifts largely run on hydrogen fuel cells.
“So Amazon has been using fuel cells within their large warehouses because the end product generated by the exhaust is water vapour. You are not going to poison anybody with water vapour. [Contrastingly], you can imagine if you drove around with a little diesel generator on your forklift, it’s going to get pretty smelly pretty fast, especially if you are in a giant warehouse with two hundred of these things,” he said.
“Use of a hydrogen fuel eliminates carbon dioxide formation. If you are not going to have any carbon in the fuel, you’re not going to have any in the exhaust either,” he added.
Meantime, for Bill Ritter Jr, the former governor of Colorado state, now turned Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, technological innovations are the only way to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2050.
“If you were to ask a group of utilities CEOs in the United States who now have goals to reduce their emissions, they would say, ‘well, we think we can reduce our emissions from 2005 by 80 percent by the year 2030. But we don’t know how to get to zero,” Ritter explained.
“We don’t know how to get from 80 per cent to 100 per cent. But the next 20 per cent is going to come through innovation.”
A matter of life and death
If hydrogen is being recognized as the potential clean fuel of the future, why has its proliferation been so stymied? One of the reasons for lack of progress is because for “the last four years, [the US] had a federal government that was very hostile toward a conversation about the global climate crisis,” Ritter said.
Another is partisanship. Ritter equated the climate crisis to the Covid-19 crisis. “You know, it’s out there in front of us. It’s existential. There are technical solutions. But if you don’t do behavioural sciences, and if you don’t figure out the psychology of acceptance for vaccinations, for instance, then you get the 40 per cent of people who don’t want to get vaccinated. We need people on board this transition to clean energy because they need to understand that it is going to affect their lives,” he said.