Today’s Solutions: January 31, 2023

Hydrogen fuel has seemingly fallen off the radar considering all the hype that surrounded this potentially sustainable fuel source in past years. Other than a blatant lack of infrastructure, a big problem with hydrogen fuel is that we haven’t figured out a way to produce hydrogen fuel in a clean, affordable manner. But that could soon change after plans were approved to build a trash-to-hydrogen production plant in Lancaster, California.

The energy company behind the plant, SGH2, says it will be three times bigger than any other green H2 facility in the world.

Production of hydrogen can vary from the relatively green (electrolysis of freshwater using solar or wind-based energy) to the profoundly filthy (gasification of brown coal) – and the filthiest are by far the cheapest. Adding carbon capture and sequestration to dirty processes simply makes them more expensive. That’s what makes this SGH2 project so interesting – the company claims it can take trash that would otherwise sit in a landfill and rot, and turn it into super-green hydrogen at bargain-basement prices.

According to a recent memorandum of understanding, the city of Lancaster will host and co-own the SGH2 Lancaster plant, which will be capable of producing up to 11,000 kg of H2 per day, or 3.8 million kg per year, while processing up to 42,000 tons of recycled waste per year. Garbage to clean fuel, with a US$2.1 to $3.2 million saving on landfill costs per year as a sweetener.

OK. That all sounds good, but what makes this process so clean and cheap?

We’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details, but basically the process involves using high-temperature plasma torches to create temperatures between 3,500 and 4,000°C (6,332 to 7,232 °F). This insane heat, combined with oxygen-enriched gas, catalyzes a molecular reaction that leaves behind the mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. This is run through a water-gas shift reactor that adds water vapor and converts the carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and more hydrogen gas. The two are separated, neatly capturing all the CO2 as hydrogen comes out the other end.

A Berkeley Lab lifecycle carbon analysis concluded, says SGH2, that each ton of hydrogen produced by this process reduces emissions by between 23 and 31 tons of CO2 equivalent – presumably counting emissions that would be created if the garbage was burned instead of converted into hydrogen. That would be between 13-19 tons more carbon dioxide avoided than any other green hydrogen production process.

The 5-acre facility, in a heavy industrial zone of Lancaster, will employ 35 people full-time and create some 600 jobs in construction. SGH2 is hoping to achieve full operational status by 2023 and is in negotiations with “California’s largest owners and operators of hydrogen refueling stations” to buy the plant’s entire output for a 10-year period.

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