How Natural Gas Pipelines Could Boost Hydrogen

A new report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy on blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines – an idea being explored in Germany – suggests it could be a worthwhile strategy to pursue, both now to help take advantage of intermittent renewable energy production and down the road as a means of distributing hydrogen for use in fuel cells.

The Obama administration in the president’s first term earned a bit of reputation as being cool to hydrogen, stemming from outgoing Secretary Steven Chu’s stated view that fuel cell vehicles were unlikely to be viable in “the distant future” because of the distribution hurdle.

In “Blending Hydrogen into Natural Gas Pipeline Networks: A Review of Key Issues,” the authors sound a fairly optimistic note about the possibility of putting the country’s extensive gas pipeline system to work for clean hydrogen’s benefit. They don’t give hydrogen a 100 percent endorsement, but in their review of the issues say that the pluses appear significant enough to warrant further study of exactly what it would take to make happen.

Blending hydrogen into natural gas pipeline networks at low concentrations has the potential to increase output from renewable energy production facilities in the near term. In the longer term, blending may provide an economic means of hydrogen delivery when the hydrogen is injected upstream and then extracted downstream for use in fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) or stationary fuel cells.

How would hydrogen in natural gas pipelines help increase output from renewable energy production facilities? By providing a way to store energy produced at times of slack demand. For instance, peak production for wind farms often comes in the low-use overnight hours. Instead of curtailing output (or inefficiently curtailing other generating systems), that energy could be use to make hydrogen through electrolysis, in which an electrical current splits the H from the H20.

“Relatively low concentrations of hydrogen, 5%–15% by volume, appear to be feasible with very few modifications to existing pipeline systems or end-use appliances,” the report said.

The report outlined a policy direction for encouraging such use:

Conceivably, a credit trading system could apply to natural gas with a specified blend content of renewable hydrogen, paralleling the renewable energy credit system used in the electricity sector. If properly crafted, this credit system could provide an economic incentive for converting otherwise curtailed renewable energy to hydrogen, increasing the energy provided from existing renewable energy production facilities, and enhancing the sustainability of the natural gas supply system.

Taking advantage of the national gas system to move around hydrogen for the purpose of using it in vehicle fuel cells would be more complicated, the report said (thus the suggestion that it could be a “longer term” possibility). That’s because hydrogen is a different animal than methane, and at high concentrations there would be “additional costs … associated with blending and extraction, as well as modifications to existing pipeline integrity management systems.” These costs, the report said, “must be weighed against alternative means of bringing more sustainable and low-carbon energy to consumers.”

The report also explored the idea of putting small amounts of hydrogen into the pipeline and then extracting it through various purification techniques at the other end. The technology seems to exist, but the cost appear quite high, although it could be economically viable at pressure regulation stations.

A PDF of the full report is available online.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Blending hydrogen might be a good idea, since hydrogen could possibly be produced and stored or injected at wind turbines or solar farms. That would increase their value by using any excess supply at peak production. Removing it later doesn’t make sense because fuel cells can just use the natural gas, which is very clean by itself, and is the normal fuel for fuel cells.

    • Tend to agree w/ that analysis Ron.

    • what is one of the most abundant elements in the universe Ron…?
      Hydrogen………almost unlimited……Methane is finite…

  • Brilliant idea.

    It also can complete for electricity distribution with lossy overhead power lines.

    Instead of pumping high voltage A/C through powerlines, we send hydrogen instead and turn it into electricity where it’s needed — in fuel cells that can be close to the application, like in cities or homes.

  • There are 5,000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. that carry AMMONIA, which is NH3, the easy way to store and transport large amounts of hydrogen, without modifications to pipelines. The cost to operate trucks, cars or farm equipment or small scale power generators is less than half that of using petroleum with taxes in, and all the CO2 that is emitted by burning hydrocarbons can be easily converted into urea and other solid ammonia-carbon based fertilizers for more profit and less net cost than venting or burning the CO2 and thereby eliminate all the pollution. The idea of spending billions of dollars developing green energy to use it to sustain the brown energy industry is touted by the oil industry, but it is clearly not in America’s economic interests. However, as Winston Churchill so eloquently said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” For the record, street cars in New Orleans ran on ammonia until the early 1900s, the Us military has converted vehicles and rockets (X-15) to use it, there is an NH3 fuel association in the U.S. and a Canadian Company converted a 1981 Chevrolet and drove it across Canada and again in 2007 they converted a Dodge Ram diesel truck to a diesel-NH3 multi-fuels system. Ammonia is used to power hydrogen fuels cells that make the electricity needed to power remote cellular telephone transmission towers in North Africa, and an Italian Yacht manufacturer is building a boat with a 1,700 Horse Power ammonia fuelled engine. A Natural Gas peaking plant running on ammonia/urea produced on site will generate 50% more electricity at the same cost and eliminate 100% of the emissions. What we need is laws that force industry to use the best available technologies and practices, not a blank cheque to use the worst technologies and business practices as is the case now. The fact is that producing cheap hydrogen without converting it into a hydride that is also a chemical currency is a mugs game. There are only tow forms of energy that are a ‘CURRENCY”, that is, they can be made from and returned into electricity. They are HYDROGEN and AMMONIA. As soon as you add either of them to a hydrocarbon, all is lost. Wake up America, time to get your politicians to re-read their grade nine science books.

    • Very interesting post Democracy Channel – have you any stats on the economics of ammonia as a fuel and the power value?

      • Interesting 2006 DOE study (rather fuel-cell car focused, but still some decent background):

        • The net energy per volume is a little less than half that of gasoline or diesel, but more than half the energy in hydrocarbons is carbon, and even with that fact, the net energy at rear shaft is almost the same as ammonia works much better. According to research done by the UOIT (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) the cost of using ammonia as a fuel will be less than half the cost of gasoline, including taxes.

          The Proceedings of the IEEE Nov. 2012, Volume: 100, Issue: 11 Digital Object Identifier: 10.1109/JPROC.2012.2222171 p.
          3000-3052, published the July 10, 2012, report, The Dual-Fuel Strategy: An Energy Transition Plan,9 with 287 scientific references in support of its intended objectives and conclusions of using Ammonia and Methanol as the solution, which was also published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and
          Astronautics (AIAA), the world’s largest technical society
          dedicated to the global aerospace profession. The report said,

          The dual-fuel strategy is a plan to facilitate the transition from fossil to renewable sources by first replacing fossil with renewable fuels. It stipulates that all energy sources (fossil, renewable, and nuclear) will be most efficiently monetized by conversion to three primary energy vectors: electric power and two liquid renewable fuels, all compatible with existing infrastructure. One member of a dual-fuel pair is nitrogen-based, for example, ammonia, and the other is carbon-based, for example, methanol.

          The Dual-Fuel Strategy: An Energy Transition Plan, Ammonia and Methanol, The Proceedings of the IEEE Nov. 2012,
          Volume: 100, Issue: 11 Digital Object Identifier: 10.1109/JPROC.2012.2222171 p. 3000-3052, published the July 10, 2012, and AIAA Journal, Chapter DOI: 10.2514/6.2012-4055,

      • See the posts above and below in reply to your question about stats and other information.

    • Dutchman61

      The problem is ammonia is a deadly gas. More than a few people died due to the ammonia fuel systems which is why it was abandoned. The 5,000 miles you speak of is a very small system mostly of low pressure branch lines. The total tonnage delivered is tiny compared to the amount needed for your effort. If we have trouble running crude oil lines or natural gas lines, how do you think people will respond to a deadly poisonous gas. Don’t forget, ammonia was used in the gas campaigns along the western front in WW1.

      • An example of finely chosen words from a juvenile perspective. The facts however, do not support such rhetoric.

        Ammonia is lighter than air, something that hydrocarbons cannot claim and the residual damage from an ammonia spill are minimal in comparison.

        A 2005 Risø National Laboratory in Denmark study, Safety assessment of ammonia as a transport fuel,33 concluded,

        “The hazards in relation to ammonia need to be controlled by a combination of technical and regulatory measures. The most important requirements are:

        Advanced safety systems in the vehicle.

        Additional technical measures and regulations are required to avoid releases in maintenance workshops and unauthorised maintenance on the fuel system.

        Road transport of ammonia to refuelling stations in refrigerated

        Sufficient safety zones between refuelling stations and residential
        or public areas.

        When these measures are applied, the
        use of ammonia as a transport fuel wouldn’t cause more risks than currently
        used fuels (using current practice).”

        Safety assessment of ammonia as a transport fuel, Risø
        National Laboratory, Denmark, Risø-R-1504(EN) 2005

        The 2009 Iowa University report, a Comparative Quantitative Risk Analysis of Motor Gasoline, LPG and
        Anhydrous Ammonia as an Automotive Fuel (59 pages, Iowa State University, 2009), concluded,

        “The hazards and risks associated with the truck transport, storage, and dispensing of refrigerated anhydrous ammonia are similar to those of gasoline and LPG. The design and siting of the automotive fueling stations should result in public risk levels that are acceptable by international risk standards. It is also
        important to note that the risk associated with traveling in a vehicle powered by any one of these fuels is dominated by accidents that do not result in a release of
        the fuel.”

        Comparative Quantitative Risk Analysis of
        Motor Gasoline, LPG & Anhydrous Ammonia as an Automotive Fuel, Iowa State University, 2009

      • Ammonia is already being made experimentally using wind power in Minnesota. Even Albert Einstein used ammonia, in a design for a safe refrigerator he and his former student Leo Szilard patented in the US.

        An ammonia-powered bus shown below was photographed after the successful inaugural trip in Brussels, in May, 1943. Eight buses and 100 vehicles ran on ammonia until the end of the war. The buses travelled over 100,000 km and there was not a single accident or injury. The only injury in the history of using ammonia as a fuel was when on car owner overfilled his ammonia tank and it ruptured, but he was not killed. A similar rupture from overfilling any tank full of hydrocarbons would almost assuredly have been deadly and catastrophic due to an explosion from a spark being created by the breaking metal because of their high flammability limits, but not possible with ammonia which is not flammable.

        Note the cylinders of coal gas fixed to the roof, and the two standard cylinders (each holding 56,6 kg of ammonia) fixed to the front of the vehicle. Source: Ammonia Fuel Network (Illustration reproduced from:
        E Kroch, “Ammonia – a fuel for motor buses”. Journal of the Institute of Petroleum. Vol.31. 1945, 2, p 215, published by the Energy Institute).

      • That is the first time I heard of ammonia being used in WWI. Chlorine gas, mustard gas, yes. Too easy to stop — wet rag with baking soda solution.

        Toxicity is all about concentration. Too much methane will also displace O2 and kill you. Remember, you have ammonia in your blood at this moment (mg/l range) so low levels are harmless.

      • in fact it was organico phosphorus……or weed killer

  • Dutchman61

    What CFL’s! The only economical way to get hydrogen is to break down natural gas. Why bother splitting water and putting it in gas? The only thing this will do is increase the possibility of an explosion in a pipeline. Natural gas pipe joints, compressor seals and other leak paths are not designed to take hydrogen. There is in fact free hydrogen in natural gas but by the time it gets to the end user it usually has leaked out of the system. 15 percent would be a huge risk.

    Then there is the other issue that if you do not reclaim it, the 15% natural gas will be difficult to burn safely. It is a real risk for residential use, but industrial burners would like it. I think this is in fact an admission that the wind mills don’t work and they are trying to find something for them to do that provides any kind of payback for the investment.

  • The big problem is “weights and measures” that dictates the btu/ft3 going to users for billing purposes. Variable about of H2 means variable heat content per ft3 — what gas meters measure.

    You would have to change all the measurement devices — big money.

  • Hydrogen? Natural gas? SAME pipelines? HELLO, does anyone remember the ill-faited airship Hindenburg? As Marvin The Martian pits it in the cartoon, “Where’s the Ka-BOOM? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering Ka-Boom!”

    • Patrick……the Hindenberg was a giant canvas bag…!