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Hydrogen Advocates Refocus on NatGas Pipelines as Commercial Bridge

University researchers in Austria have rekindled the latest fervor for the long-sought "hydrogen economy" driven by the eventual harnessing of a potentially inexhaustible energy source and existing natural gas infrastructure.

At the Technology University in Vienna (TU Wien) researchers have developed a way to mix hydrogen and natural gas and then filter out hydrogen again that is nearly 100% pure for use in fuel cells. They will present the technology this week during the world's largest industrial trade fair, Hannover Messe (April 25-29), in Hanover, Germany.

Members of the Washington, DC-based Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA) will showcase their latest advances in fuel cells and hydrogen products, one of a dozen exhibits at the massive industrial trade show. President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are scheduled to be on hand for the opening ceremonies Monday.

The TU Wien and U.S. representatives are channeling a futuristic energy outlook that has been around since the early post-World War II years, drawn to the idea of marrying greater use of hydrogen as an energy source with the industrial nations' now mature natural gas pipeline infrastructure that is the most robust in North America.

Hydrogen has long been viewed as a valuable source of energy, and that is growing globally primarily because it enables excess electric energy from renewable energy sources to be stored. That storage, theoretically, allows electrical energy to be produced in large fuel cells or for transportation in smaller fuel cells.

The TU Wien researchers have developed a two-stage process (HylyPure) specifically for separating out hydrogen. In 2014, researchers in the Netherlands promoted a scenario in which natural gas pipelines can be a bridge for hydrogen (see Daily GPI, Dec. 9, 2014).

Natural gas pipeline and distribution system operators currently have no guidelines for accommodating the injection of hydrogen into their networks. Netherlands-based consultant DNV GL has sponsored a global industry project called HYREADY, involving natural gas value chain participants and technology providers seeking to develop standards for hydrogen injection.

More than a decade ago, hydrogen was touted as an energy alternative that could be a "market opportunity" for the natural gas industry (see Daily GPI, March 16, 2006). Today it continues to be viewed as a valuable source of energy.

"Fuel cells and hydrogen technologies provide environmental and economic benefits for transportation, power generation and material handling markets today," said FCHEA President Morry Markowitz.

Researchers from TU Wien are offering the possibility to take advantage of existing natural gas infrastructure to also move hydrogen and providing it to end users who want it by creating the ability to filter the hydrogen out of the mixture with natural gas. They apply a pressure swing adsorption process in which other molecules, such as methane in natural gas, are specifically adsorbed by porous materials.

"The process even works under a high pressures of more than 800 psi, meaning it can also be applied to the primary gas pipeline networks," according to the TU Wien group. "The end-product is hydrogen with a degree of purity of up to 99.97%."

The Austrians said they have already successfully tested their HylyPure technology together with their industry partners, OMV AG, operator of a natural gas pipeline system in Austria and storage there and in Germany. "We are now looking for other project partners, operators of natural gas networks, electrolysis systems and hydrogen filling stations," said TU Wien's Michael Harasek.

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