Study shows hydrogen made from natural gas dirtier than burning the natural gas directly

Hydrogen has been long considered to be an alternative fuel that could help stem emissions from cars, trucks, planes, and other forms of transportation. However, a new study reveals that the ways in which we manufacture hydrogen in the United States may actually be doing more damage to the environment than good. Before we delve […]

Hydrogen has been long considered to be an alternative fuel that could help stem emissions from cars, trucks, planes, and other forms of transportation. However, a new study reveals that the ways in which we manufacture hydrogen in the United States may actually be doing more damage to the environment than good.

Before we delve into the study, it’s important to know that the The New York Times headline, “For Many, Hydrogen Is the Fuel of the Future. New Research Raises Doubts” can be confusing if you don’t read the full article. That’s because it’s not hydrogen that’s the culprit, but natural gas. And unfortunately, natural gas, which is still a fossil fuel, is the primary method of making hydrogen in the United States.

So-called “blue hydrogen” requires the burning of natural gas to split water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules, where it can then be used, for example, in hydrogen fuel cell powertrains.

According to a new study published in the journal Energy Science & Engineering, the mining of natural gas creates significant quantities of carbon dioxide. Not only that, but the study also found that during the natural gas mining process as much as 3.5% of the gas leaks into the atmosphere, a consequential portion of which is methane. Methane can be, by some estimates, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in regards to the greenhouse effect. Of course, even that number has nuances that depend on time and source.

In fact, the Energy Science & Engineering study shows that as a result of these previously unknown figures, it would be less polluting just to burn the natural gas directly rather than convert it to blue hydrogen.

While many energy companies are promoting hydrogen as an alternative fuel due to investments in natural gas mines, it would be far more friendly to Mother Earth if hydrogen was manufactured using solar or other forms of renewable energy. This type of hydrogen is called green hydrogen.

The manufacturing methods may explain in part why some carmakers have such divergent views when talking about alternative fuels. Toyota, for example, has been quite stubborn about their hydrogen research, while in the United States, battery-electric vehicles seem on track to replace ICEs.

When Autoblog spoke to Toyota about its recent hydrogen fuel-powered Corolla endurance racer with a slightly modified GR Yaris motor, the engineers told us that in Japan, hydrogen is manufactured using electricity sourced from nuclear plants and fossil fuels, thus making it slightly cleaner than the American natural gas method. Meanwhile, the Corolla race car used green hydrogen produced solely by solar power, so that was definitely cleaner overall than an EV.

Additionally, some types of vehicles are more suited to hydrogen. Hydrogen can be quickly filled, like gasoline, which means that long-haul trucks, for instance, will require less downtime that they would for recharging. Planes, on the other hand, may not be able to support the weight of heavy battery packs and will likely eventually turn to green hydrogen for fuel.

In any case, it’s important to underline that hydrogen itself is not the issue. It’s the natural gas and the fact that it’s the primary method of hydrogen manufacture in the United States.