MITEI researchers build a supply chain model to support the hydrogen economy |


Over the past decades, the need for carbon-free energy has driven increasing interest in hydrogen as an environmentally clean fuel. But shifting the economy away from fossils fuels to clean-burning hydrogen will require significant adjustments in current supply chains. To facilitate this transition, an MIT-led team of researchers has developed a new hydrogen supply chain planning model.

“We propose flexible scheduling for trucks and pipelines, allowing them to serve as both storage and transmission,” says Guannan He, a postdoc at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and lead author of a recent paper published by IEEE Transactions on Sustainable Energy. “This is very important to green hydrogen produced from intermittent renewables, because this can provide extra flexibility to meet variability in supply and demand.”

Hydrogen has been widely recognized as a promising path to decarbonizing many sectors of the economy because it packs in more energy by weight than even gasoline or natural gas, yet generates zero emissions when used as an energy source. Producing hydrogen, however, can generate significant emissions. According to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 95 percent of the hydrogen produced today is generated through steam methane reforming (SMR), an energy-intensive process in which methane reacts with water to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. A secondary part of this process adds steam to the cooled gas to convert carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce more hydrogen.

Ultimately, hydrogen production today accounts for about 4 percent of CO2 emissions globally, says He, and that number will rise significantly if hydrogen becomes popular as a fuel for electric vehicles and such industrial processes as steel refining and ammonia production. Realizing the vision of creating an entirely decarbonized hydrogen economy therefore depends on using renewable energy to produce hydrogen, a task often accomplished through electrolysis, a process that extracts hydrogen from water electrochemically.

However, using renewable energy requires storage to move energy from times and places with peak generation to those with peak demand. And, storage is expensive.

The researchers expanded their thinking about storage to address this key concern: They used trucks in their model both as a means of fuel transmission and of storage — since hydrogen can be readily stored in idled trucks. This tactic reduces costs in the hydrogen supply chain by about 9 percent by bringing down the need for other storage solutions, says He. “We found it very important to use the trucks in this way,” says He. “It can reduce the cost of the system and encourage renewable-based hydrogen production, instead of gas-based production.”

Developing the model

Previous studies have attempted to assess the potential benefit of hydrogen storage in power systems, but they have not considered infrastructure investment needs from the perspective of a whole hydrogen supply chain, He says. And such work is critical to enabling a hydrogen economy.

For the new model, the research team — He; MITEI research scientists Emre Gençer and Dharik Mallapragada; Abhishek Bose, an MIT master’s student in technology and policy; and Clara F. Heuberger, a researcher at Shell Global Solutions International B.V. — adopted the perspective of a central planner interested in minimizing system costs and maximizing societal benefit. The researchers looked at costs associated with the four main steps in the hydrogen supply chain: production, storage, compression, and transmission. “Unless we take a holistic approach to analyzing the entire supply chain, it is hard to determine the prospects for hydrogen. This work fills that gap in the literature,” Gençer says.

To ensure their model was as comprehensive as possible, the researchers included a wide range of hydrogen-related technologies, including…

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