To realize a viable hydrogen economy, it’s not just about producing hydrogen. It’s also about how to transport, or distribute hydrogen at scale. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy launched HyBlend, an initiative to integrate hydrogen into existing natural gas pipelines with an initial milestone of 20% hydrogen-80% methane. By using existing pipelines, blending would swiftly address transportation challenges associated with hydrogen, such as new pipeline development costs, politically fraught pipeline construction, and the inefficiencies of current trucking methods. The most significant benefit of blending hydrogen at high volumes over long distances is the rapid decarbonization it offers. Hydrogen-methane blending immediately reduces the greenhouse effects of leaking or consuming natural gas, replacing it with clean-burning hydrogen.
In line with this decarbonization effort, Oceanit is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy to overcome distribution challenges with existing infrastructure. Oceanit is developing nanocomposite surface treatments that, when applied to existing infrastructure, ensure pipelines can safely transport higher blends and pressures of hydrogen gas.
Researchers in the hydrogen energy sector widely regard 20% hydrogen-methane blending as an initial milestone for decarbonization – a first step on the path to a hydrogen economy. The 20% blend ratio aims to strike a balance between achieving lower emissions and managing initial infrastructure safety costs.
A Foot into Decarbonization
The United States, among other nations, increasingly recognizes hydrogen’s potential as a replacement for traditional fossil fuels. Unlike fossil fuels that are finite in nature and release significant carbon emissions when burned, hydrogen only emits water vapor when burned and is abundant on planet Earth.
Natural gas, while cleaner than coal, was responsible for 35% of all CO2 emissions from U.S. energy consumption in 2022, amounting to a staggering 1.7 billion metric tons of CO2. For perspective, just one million tons equals the yearly emissions of 35 commercial airliners, 215,000 passenger vehicles, or 115,000 U.S. homes.
Introducing hydrogen to natural gas mixes offers an immediate, massive reduction in this vast greenhouse gas footprint. This strategy aligns with the U.S. National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap, aiming for a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. A blend of over 20% hydrogen in natural gas pipelines could save more than 120 million metric tons of carbon annually.
On a global scale, introducing 20% hydrogen into pipelines could help combat global warming. Oceanit estimates that this move will help buy the planet up to 15 years before global warming hits 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This 1.5°C threshold is an internationally recognized, vital goal to keep the global temperature below 1.5°C. Temperature above it could lead to irreversible climate impacts, including ecosystem devastation, and this is just the beginning.
Transitioning to hydrogen-specific energy infrastructure presents formidable economic and practical challenges. Hydrogen pipelines demand specific metals, which cost approximately 68% more than traditional natural gas pipeline materials. This is on top of today’s cost for traditional pipeline construction, which has sharply skyrocketed to $10 million per mile, and other concerns around new pipelines, such as political, cultural, and ecological sensitivities. Given the costs and other significant barriers, it is widely accepted that the most realistic approach to integrating H2 at scale involves retrofitting existing natural gas pipelines. Such integration would not only ensure swifter execution but also signify a monumental step toward greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
Beyond environmental conservation, blending hydrogen into existing pipelines promises tangible economic benefits. In 2022, natural gas supplied 33% of U.S. energy needs, supported by an expansive pipeline network spanning over 3 million miles. In contrast, hydrogen’s dedicated pipelines were limited to slightly above 1,600 miles, necessitating road-based transportation for the remainder. Incorporating hydrogen directly into natural gas pipelines promises faster, more widespread delivery and substantial cost savings.
Breaking the 20% Barrier
The reason that 20% is an industry milestone is that a higher percentage of hydrogen blends at existing flow pressures could be unsafe. Excessive hydrogen pressures and concentrations can compromise a pipeline’s integrity due to a phenomenon known as hydrogen embrittlement.
‘Embrittlement’ refers to the metals that the pipeline is constructed from and can lead to leaks, cracking, failures, or even explosions. Oceanit’s HydroPel is a nanocomposite surface treatment developed to shield existing pipelines’ metal walls from embrittlement. With HydroPel as a nano barrier, pipelines could potentially handle 100% pure hydrogen.
Pure hydrogen in the pipelines effectively means replacing all methane-heavy natural gas, and it could save the U.S. about 1.7 billion Metric Tons of CO2 emissions. While it wouldn’t be without challenges, the use of HydroPel represents a significant step towards the hydrogen energy transition.
HydroPel’s installation costs are far more affordable than constructing new hydrogen pipelines. Oceanit’s techno-economic assessment shows that HydroPel installation costs are just 6% of new hydrogen-specific pipeline costs. In other words, repurposing 10,000 miles of existing natural gas pipeline with HydroPel can save around ¼ trillion dollars over 40 years. As companies and nations look to break through the 20% blend barrier, HydroPel offers a solution to enable greater volumes of H2 without sacrificing throughput and without the need to construct new pipelines.
Blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines signifies a transformative step in the quest for cleaner energy solutions. It showcases the potential of melding innovative technologies with established infrastructures to address pressing adoption costs and environmental concerns. While other H2 challenges persist, solutions such as HydroPel provide a faster, cheaper, and more reliable pathway to transporting the vast amounts of hydrogen needed to answer the world’s energy needs.
Founded in 1985, Oceanit is a “Mind to Market” company that creates disruptive technology from fundamental science. Utilizing the unique discipline of Intellectual Anarchy, Oceanit reimagines innovation to break the bonds of normal and solve the impossible — delivering technologies to the market that impact humans and society. Oceanit’s diverse teams work across aerospace, healthcare, energy, and industrial/ consumer technologies, as well as on environmental and climate matters. Through engineering and scientific excellence, Oceanit transforms fundamental science into impactful, market-focused technologies used around the world.