Hydrogen – The Fuel of the Future?

Max Meyer, MJLST Staffer

Hydrogen is viewed by many as being a key part of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers expressed interest in hydrogen and want to support its adoption in the United States. When used as a fuel source, hydrogen produces only water and heat. It could potentially be used to power cars, trucks, and airplanes and generate electricity. Hydrogen is used on a fairly minimal scale today, but entities ranging from industry to government are increasing investment in the technology. Currently, hydrogen is regulated by a variety of federal agencies, but no comprehensive regulatory scheme exists.


Hydrogen Production 

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on earth, but it only exists in compound form with other elements. Hydrogen has the highest fuel content of any fuel by weight.

Hydrogen can be separated from compounds in a few different ways. It can be produced from steam-methane reforming which accounts for 95% of hydrogen production in the U.S. In this process, “natural gas (which is mostly methane) reacts with high pressure, high temperature steam in the presence of a catalyst to produce a mixture of mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide.” The product stream is then processed further to produce a stream of mostly hydrogen. Water can be added to this mixture to convert the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. If the carbon dioxide is subsequently capture and stored underground, the hydrogen produced is referred to as blue hydrogen. If the carbon dioxide is not captured, the hydrogen is called grey hydrogen.

Hydrogen can also be produced from water by electrolysis which splits water molecules into pure hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. When renewable energy is used for electrolysis the resulting hydrogen is often referred to as green hydrogen.


Why Is It Important?

Using fuel cells, hydrogen can produce electricity. A fuel cell contains two electrodes, one negative and one positive, with an electrolyte in the middle. Hydrogen is fed into the negative electrode and air is fed into the positive end. At the negative end, a catalyst separates the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. To produce electricity, the electrons go through an external circuit before entering the positive electrode. Then, the protons, electrons, oxygen unite to produce water and heat. Fuel cells can be used in a number of applications ranging passenger and commercial vehicles to powering buildings.


Current Regulatory Framework

Hydrogen is regulated by several federal agencies. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates hydrogen pipelines. PHMSA’s mission is to “protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials[.]” Thus, PHMSA’s regulation of hydrogen pipelines is focused on safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates hydrogen in workplaces OSHA’s regulation of hydrogen specifically covers the installation of hydrogen systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also regulates hydrogen in several ways. Hydrogen is regulated under the EPA’s Mandator Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, Effluent Standards under the Clean Water Act, and Chemical Accident Prevention program. However, the EPA’s regulation of hydrogen is primarily a result of hydrogen’s relationship to fossil fuels. The regulations are concerned with the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels such as the methane steam reform process outlined above.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has invested in research and development concerning hydrogen. In 2020, the DOE released its Hydrogen Program Plan. The DOE’s program is intended to “research, develop and validate transformational hydrogen and related technologies… and to address institutional and market barriers, to ultimately enable adoption across multiple applications and sectors.”

In 2021, Congress passed an infrastructure bill with $9.5 billion of funding for clean hydrogen initiatives. $8 billion of that funding is directed towards the creation of Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs across the country to increase the use of hydrogen in the industrial sector. $1 billion is for clean hydrogen electrolysis research to lower costs from producing hydrogen using renewable energy. Finally, $500 million is for Clean Hydrogen Manufacturing and Recycling to “support equipment manufacturing and strong domestic supply chains.”


Regulation in the Future

The federal government currently does not regulate the construction of hydrogen pipelines. Presently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Natural Gas Act “regulates the siting, construction, and operation of interstate natural gas pipelines.” If Congress were to give FERC this same power for hydrogen pipelines it would allow for national planning of the infrastructure and lead to a comprehensive pipeline network. Recently, members of Congress have considered the regulatory framework covering hydrogen pipelines and if additional authority over these pipelines should be given to FERC or other federal agencies. However, these discussions are still in the preliminary stages.

Hydrogen has the potential to play a large role in the United States’ effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It can be used in a variety of industries including the transportation and industrial sectors. Congress has recognized hydrogen’s importance and must continue to invest in lowering the costs of hydrogen production and building hydrogen infrastructure.