Americans have been deluged with news about plastics and how they are littering cities and waterways while consuming space in landfills. There’s some good news: an uncommon waste-to-fuel process is underway that can convert that material into biogas, which is then used to create green hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a key pillar when it comes to running a decarbonized economy — a fuel that can power both the electricity and transportation sectors. To that end, a plant in Lancaster, California, which is just north of Los Angeles, is in the design phase and it will use plastics and recycled paper as a feedstock — waste that would otherwise go to a landfill. It is gasified at temperates of 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit before getting transformed into hydrogen.
The company doing this is SGH2 Energy Global, which is part of the Solena Group. It says that its technology reduces carbon emissions two-to-three times more than green-hydrogen produced using electrolysis and renewable energy. It also says that its technology is five-to-seven times cheaper. SGH2’s green hydrogen is cost-competitive with “grey” hydrogen that is produced from fossil fuels, it says, which is what makes up most of the hydrogen in use now.
“The beauty here, is that Lancaster will be using this for transportation but it could also be used to generate electricity,” says Robert Do, chief executive of SGH2, in an interview with this writer. “It can be stored and then used for multiple purposes. This will be the first large-scale green hydrogen plant in the world.”
The plant will produce as much as 11,000 kilograms of green hydrogen per day, and 3.8 million kilograms per year, he says. That is nearly three times more than any existing or planned green hydrogen facility. The complex will process 40,000 tons of waste annually, mostly supplied by the city of Lancaster, which will save it $50-$75 per ton in landfill-related costs.
The plant is now in the engineering and design phase — something headed by Fluor Corp
“We have positioned ourselves to be the alternative energy capital of the world,” says Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican. “This is game-changing technology. It not only solves our air quality and climate challenges by producing pollution-free hydrogen. It also solves our plastics and waste problems by turning them into green hydrogen…”
A Big Bite
Clean hydrogen’s potential? Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that it could supply 24% of the world’s energy demands by 2050 while cutting CO2 levels by 34%. It adds that this can be done at a reasonable price if favorable public policies are enacted, including putting a price on carbon.
The advantages of hydrogen are that it is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. Water vapor is the only byproduct of a fuel cell car that runs on hydrogen. But it is difficult to store that gas, and it is about 30% more expensive to move it via pipelines than it is to carry natural gas.
But Dr. Do of SGH2 says that a compelling case can be made, especially for transportation: cars and light duty vehicles require 5 kilograms of hydrogen at 700-bar compression at a hydrogen fueling station. At $15 per kilogram, it cost about $75 to fill up. But with a range of 500 miles, the price is competitive. A combustion engine that burns gasoline has an efficiency rate of 30%, he says, while a fuel cell car with hydrogen has one of 75%, explaining the better mileage per unit of energy.
At present, fuel cells are being adopted for materials handling equipment such as forklifts as well as in powering telecommunications infrastructure. As for the transportation sector, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are creating fuel cell-powered cars. Meantime, FedEx Express
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that in 2018 the electric power and transportation sectors accounted for 27% and 28% of the total manmade greenhouse gas emissions, respectively. Dr. Do says that hydrogen can be injected directly into the existing natural gas turbines or pipelines, although it has a blending-rate of 20%. The Intermountain Power Project in Utah is converting from a coal plant to a combined cycle natural gas plant, which will then create a pure form of green hydrogen and transport it via pipelines to Los Angeles.
Dr. Do also says that hydrogen-fueled vehicles have more potential than electric-vehicles. That is because it takes much less time to power-up a hydrogen car than it does an electric one. A hydrogen tank and a fuel-cell stack weigh 10-times less than an electric car battery, he notes, adding that the best electric vehicles can go 225 miles on a single charge while hydrogen cars can hit 500 miles.
“Hydrogen will eventually take a bigger bite out of the heavy-duty vehicle market than electric vehicles,” says the chief executive. “Long-range trucks and buses will benefit. And if you have a car, you don’t need a garage with a power outlet — just a hydrogen pump and it is ready to go in 15 minutes.”
If this Lancaster project works as advertised, hydrogen’s prospects will spike — not just in California but also around the world where used plastics are littering the landscape and oceans. That waste would be gasified and turned into hydrogen that can run both power plants and cars — a critical step to reaching global climate targets and running a decarbonized economy.