Climate Tech

Clean hydrogen has a leak problem—and the tech to monitor it is nascent

The issue is taking on a new urgency as clean hydrogen projects surge in popularity and draw billions in funding.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Clean hydrogen sounds pretty straightforward, but there are a lot of complexities and caveats tied to this fuel and its applications.

One of the key concerns with the fast-growing fuel—aside from determining what “clean” even meansis the potential for hard-to-detect hydrogen leaks to diminish its climate benefits.

“When you do your life-cycle assessment, and you’re not including the hydrogen leakage  warming impact, it may look like it’s on par with electric vehicles, for example, when you use hydrogen fuel cells. Which really isn’t the case once you start including this hydrogen leakage component and accounting for its near-term effects in addition to the long-term effects,” Ilissa Ocko, senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who studies the climate impact of hydrogen emissions, told Emerging Tech Brew.

“It could change your results of what you want to do in a certain situation,” she added.

The leakage problem is taking on a new urgency as clean hydrogen projects surge in popularity and draw billions in funding. The capacity of low- and zero-carbon hydrogen projects—which encompases both blue and green hydrogen—in the pipeline globally this year has more than tripled compared with 2021, according to S&P Global. The US Department of Energy is funding large clean-hydrogen projects, and the bipartisan infrastructure law provides $8 billion for clean-hydrogen hubs.

To create the most efficient systems and choose the most beneficial applications for this fuel, the clean-hydrogen industry will need access to affordable measurement tech that can detect concentrations an order of magnitude smaller than the tools that are commercially available today, Ocko said.

“This is the right time, as it starts to get ramped up, to really help instill best practices with hydrogen,” Scott Herndon, principal scientist at Aerodyne Research, told us. “We know that some segment of the potential scheme of operators maybe won’t realize the leaking that is taking place, and we’ll be depriving researchers and government agencies the ability to detect those by not having this technology.”

The clean-hydrogen sector includes a mix of companies working on fuel cells for transportation, like Bloom Energy; hydrogen production for heavy industry, like Electric Hydrogen; and hydrogen as a long-duration energy-storage method, like Mitsubishi Power Americas.

Tiny and buoyant

While hydrogen itself doesn’t trap heat, more hydrogen in the atmosphere can cause chemical reactions that lead to an increase in other greenhouse gases. Hydrogen is especially susceptible to leakage and is tough to measure because it’s tiny—8x smaller than methane.

“It’s just really moving around, literally the smallest molecule that we’re aware of in existence in the universe. We have problems containing methane and natural gas,” Ocko said. “Theory suggests that you could have three times more leakage of hydrogen than methane based on just the composition of the molecule itself.”

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Historically, there has not been much demand from companies for instruments sensitive enough for small hydrogen leaks, according to Dan Zimmerle, director of the methane emissions program at the Colorado State University Energy Institute.

“But of course, if you put an emphasis on it, there’s a lot of companies who make their living on sensing, and they will go after it in a big way,” he said.

Much of the technology used to detect hydrogen leaks will be built off of what has been learned about measuring methane emissions, Zimmerle said. This type of high-end tool to detect hydrogen exists, but “inexpensive instruments that are scalable in the same way that we’ve gotten to with methane are nascent,” he said.

Aerodyne Research is an example of one company building on existing methane-detecting tools to spot hydrogen leaks.

“We’ve got so much experience with methane, that the analogy and knowing what the leaks are going to look like at hydrogen facilities is a no-brainer,” Herndon said.

The company has deployed methane-sensing tech at ~700 oil and gas sites, Herndon said. His team of five has now created a fast and sensitive instrument to measure how much hydrogen is escaping by driving it around a production or storage facility.

The EDF plans to use Aerodyne’s technology for hydrogen leak studies, but this type of equipment—reserved mainly for research—can come with a price tag in the $100,000 range, Zimmerle said.

It will take more product development to turn this high-end tech into a sensor similar to continuous methane monitoring devices that can now cost just a few thousand dollars. But unlike their methane-detection products, Aerodyne’s hydrogen-measurement tech isn’t currently on a path to commercialization, Herndon said.

The company received funding from the DOE’s Small Business Innovation Research program to support the demonstration of this new technology, but has not received Phase 2 funding for commercialization, he said. Herndon expects that some companies in the hydrogen business will be interested in purchasing Aerodyne’s detection technology once the industry sees its effectiveness in a research setting.

“[DOE has] really made a short-sighted decision in this case,” he said. “We’re kind of shaking the couches and rubbing sticks together to check off the commercialization activities that the program is ideally designed to foster.”

Ultimately, without considering the climate impacts over the entire life cycle of clean hydrogen production, transportation, and use, the industry may be scaling up before it has the information it needs to weigh the benefits and drawbacks, experts warned.

“In most cases, it is less warming than we would have had from fossil fuels,” Ocko said. “But the point is, it’s not climate-neutral in the way people think it is.”

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