This Solution to a Century-Old Problem Could Produce Hydrogen at Scale


The energy transition, now in full swing, is on the verge of the momentum needed to achieve the proliferating net zero targets, such as those recently set forth by G7 leaders. It's an important inflection point for the future of decarbonization, and hydrogen is poised to play a major role.

In Europe, electric vehicles surpassed 10% of the total passenger cars sold in 2020, up from 4% in 2019. But heavier modes of transport such as trucks, buses, airplanes and ships need more power than batteries can currently deliver. Hydrogen fuel cells have long seemed the most likely solution, with some analysts expecting annual growth rates of nearly 67% between 2019 and 2026.

Hydrogen is also a likely clean candidate to replace coal in energy-intensive industrial applications such as steel and cement production. Decarbonizing them will move the needle substantially when it comes to emissions.

But these solutions require producing hydrogen at scale economically. Which remains a challenge -- for now.

The more solutions, the better

The imperative to develop new forms of hydrogen production is driving cooperation and commitment from a wide range of companies, from start-ups to industrial giants. These collaborations are critical to connecting a variety of innovative technologies to rapidly developing markets.

“We’ve been accumulating technology on the demand side. Now we’re investing in production technologies to create the other half of the hydrogen chain.”Ricky SakaiVice President of New Business Development at MHI America

Realizing the energy transition and becoming carbon-neutral will require a robust hydrogen market. In addition to a supply of clean hydrogen, we'll also need enough demand to make producing hydrogen at scale economically compelling.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industry (MHI) Group is focused on advancing the variety of both solutions and technologies that will give rise to the hydrogen value chain and connect various sectors. "We have been accumulating technology on the demand side, like hydrogen-powered gas turbines, fuel cells and direct reduction for steelmaking," says Ricky Sakai, Vice President of New Business Development at MHI America. "Now, we're investing in hydrogen production technologies to create the other half of the hydrogen chain."

The current state of hydrogen production

Most hydrogen manufacturing today involves steam methane reforming, a process that uses natural gas as a feedstock. Although cost-effective and technically proven at scale, this conventional technology emits significant carbon dioxide.

Companies that rely on steam methane reforming today must capture the CO2 they create. As a leader in carbon capture utilization and storage technology, MHI Group has long had an interest in developing a market for captured carbon, and its investments will enable processes that make use of the CO2 to help reduce hydrogen production emissions in the short term. For example, the e-fuels produced by Infinium, an MHI Group investment partner, use captured carbon as a feedstock.

A robust hydrogen market requires other methods that reduce or eliminate the CO2 generated in production. To that end, MHI Group is partnering with companies that are developing innovative ways to create clean hydrogen. Monolith Materials, Inc. another MHI Group investment partner, has one such solution, which it's looking to commercialize in the near term.

“You can track through the patent literature. People have been working on this problem nonstop for 100 years.”Rob HansonCEO of Monolith

The promise of methane pyrolysis

When Monolith's founders set out to find new ways to create a clean energy future, they found their solution in the past. Pyrolysis, the thermal decomposition of methane -- using high temperatures to produce hydrogen gas and solid carbon -- was patented back in 1918. But it had never been economical enough to commercialize. "You can track through the patent literature," says Monolith CEO Rob Hanson. "People have been working on this problem nonstop for 100 years."

Monolith retooled pyrolysis to sell both the hydrogen and the solid carbon it produces. The solid carbon consists of a fine powder known as carbon black, a sophisticated nano material and key ingredient in car tires, batteries and plastics. Since carbon black production has historically emitted CO2, Monolith's technology is a decarbonization win-win: It produces clean, high-value hydrogen and clean carbon black, resulting in a net reduction of emissions across multiple industries.

Creating an end market for hydrogen

Monolith has already built its first commercial unit, which is capable of making 5,000 tons of clean hydrogen per year. But generating both supply and demand for clean hydrogen in sync is challenging. Industrial applications need a plentiful supply of affordable, clean hydrogen before they can use it to decarbonize their processes. At the same time, clean hydrogen providers must be able to sell enough hydrogen to afford to produce the gas at scale in the first place.

“Our ambitions are much larger as we see some new growth markets in hydrogen emerge over the coming years and decades.”Rob HansonCEO of Monolith

Monolith has solved this problem in the short term. It uses its clean hydrogen to produce anhydrous ammonia, which has immediate applications in agriculture as fertilizer. Ammonia may also play a key role in the future as carrier of hydrogen, since the gas is notoriously expensive to transport in its pure form. As demand builds, Monolith is ready to follow it.

"Our ambitions are much larger," says CEO Rob Hanson, "as we see some new growth markets in hydrogen emerge over the coming years and decades."

From end market to value chain

The partnership between Monolith and MHI Group could help establish those growth markets. Both companies see strategic collaborations such as their own initiative as a critical component of hydrogen's evolution.

By partnering with start-ups like Monolith, MHI Group aims to accelerate innovation that creates the upstream market for hydrogen. "MHI Group's deep bench of research engineers stands ready to help develop these technologies and bring them to commercial scale," says Sakai.

For Monolith, partnerships with MHI Group and others are the key to moving innovative technology into the broader marketplace. “We’re trying to solve the issue of having too much CO2, in the atmosphere, so we’re going to have to figure out ways to get multiple key technologies to key regions of the world,” says Hanson.

Ultimately, it will take both elements – a variety of innovative technologies and the means to penetrate a growing number of markets in the near term – to create a strong hydrogen value chain that lays the foundation to decarbonize the world.


Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

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