Cryogenic Industrial Gas to Play Major Role in Alternative Clean Energy

by Stan Levandowski, senior program manager–cryogenics, Circor Cryogenics,

While industrial gases and cryogenics have touched nearly every sector and industrial market for decades, the global push towards alternative clean energy technology is pushing cryogenics more rapidly than ever before.

As part of this push, Circor (CSA CSM) is setting new standards for a hydrogen energy world. New technologies and resources have provided significant reductions in equipment cost, as well as enhanced safety, and improved efficiencies and performance. These are all signs that liquified natural gas/compressed natural gas (LNG/CNG) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) can play an important role as viable alternative energy resources for decades to come.

Hydrogen – Ever-Growing Demand for this Basic Building Block of Nature

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, accounting for 93% of the total number of atoms, and 76% of the weight of the universe’s matter (as we know the universe today). Hydrogen was first recognized by Paracelsus (1493-1541), who noticed that when iron and sulfuric acid interact, “an air arises which burst forth like the wind.” In 1781, Henry Cavendish proved that hydrogen burned in air will form water.

Stars, like our own sun, generate immense radiant energies of their fiery cores by a nuclear reaction consuming their basic ingredient, hydrogen. Unfortunately, hydrogen is much less abundant in uncombined forms, since the earth’s gravitation is too small to hold very light molecules of such high velocity. However, in its combined form (water, organic tissues and hydrocarbon fossils), hydrogen is abundant: a basic building block of nature.

Cryogenic hydrogen is an odorless, colorless, frigid (-423 °F) liquid—the lightest there is! It weighs six tenths of a pound per gallon, one fourteenth as much as water. Up until the 1950’s, hydrogen was only a laboratory curiosity. Today, hydrogen is an industrial marvel. It is in universal global demand in the petroleum sectors; where low sulfur and clean energy fuels are needed to meet new and expanding clean air environmental regulations.

Hydrogen-Powered Vehicle Fuel Gains Ground

Hydrogen is the main driver for efficient fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which have several advantages over battery electric vehicles. Both vehicle types emit zero emissions, and both run on electricity that drives the electric motor drivetrain. However, FCEV vehicles do not have batteries that need to be constantly recharged from outside the vehicle as long as the FCEV vehicles have enough of their hydrogen fuel source.

Enormous progress and inroads have been made with proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell technologies. Fuel cells are now more efficient, compact and less costly than ever before, but much more research is needed to further reduce their cost and improve efficiency.

In addition, expanded infrastructures are necessary, including retail filling stations. Manufacturers of automobiles, trucks and trains must work together to build competition that will support a global drive toward standardization, cost reduction and safety for reliable resources that reduce our carbon footprint and yield a future for zero-emissions vehicles.

Many European countries, Australia, and Japan are actively engaged in advancing the use of hydrogen in FCEV driven vehicles with governmental laws and policies mandating alternative energy options for a reduced and emissions-free environment effective as early as 2020. The US (except for California) lags behind in these efforts.

Just like fossil fuels—gasoline, diesel and natural gas—the hydrogen fuel industry will spend years, if not decades, establishing universal standards that assure the public of safe usage, handling and transportation of hydrogen as an everyday household commodity. The more hydrogen vehicles committed to the public in early years by the major automotive manufacturers, the quicker the public will build confidence and accept hydrogen powered vehicles as a safe alternative to their current and former fossil fueled vehicles. Much like the public feared using gasoline to drive the first horseless carriages, hydrogen still has a monkey on its back, as LNG/CNG did back in the 1960s and 70s.

LNG/CNG and Hydrogen Will Be Creating New Markets and Jobs Worldwide

Alternative clean energy resources, like LNG/CNG, hydrogen and FCEVs, will continue to be solid growth initiatives for the global hydrogen industrial gas industry far into the 2050s. This drive will continue to create new markets and unprecedented jobs worldwide. It is anticipated that the global auto manufactures will be selling tens of thousands of hydrogen-fueled vehicles globally per year in the 2020s.

It is paramount that governmental organizations and industry trade societies continue to set new rules, laws and regulations. The industrial gas and cryogenics industries, and their OEM partners worldwide, will play a critical role in the advancement of hydrogen as a safe alternative to fossil fuels.

Just as important will be to continue to educate society as well as getting new students and faculty excited about the innovations and new technologies in the industrial gas industry. The world is changing rapidly, and hydrogen will become increasingly more critical as an energy source.

Stan Levandowski has 45 years’ experience in cryogenics, specializing in liquid hydrogen and liquid helium applications for space launch systems, superconductivity and MRI, and ultra high purity bellow sealed valves for the semiconductor industry.