f the “road to net zero” consisted of physical paths, renewable generation would be a straight road. Steep, yes. Stony, occasionally. After all, arrays must connect with project finance; onshore wind must win over NIMBYs; battery makers must secure critical minerals to build the requisite energy storage to make solar and wind dispatchable. The route poses challenges—but the road is clear.
If renewables are akin to driving along Highway 46 (supposedly the US’s longest, straightest stretch of highway), hydrogen is more like parachuting into a forest with a flashlight and compass. The IEA projects that hydrogen will contribute to roughly 6% of global emissions reductions by 2050, especially those in sectors difficult to electrify directly.
But what makes hydrogen such a fascinating (and, occasionally, frustrating) growth area is how much debate exists on how best to scale clean hydrogen effectively.
As my colleagues at 8 Rivers and I have found ourselves in those woods, we’ve made efficiency our compass. Here’s how energy efficiency, cost efficiency and time efficiency indicate how best to scale ultra-low-carbon hydrogen.
Clear need for clean hydrogen
According to the IEA’s net-zero scenario, the world will need more than 150mt of hydrogen annually by 2030, and even more by 2050.
While energy experts debate the fringes of hydrogen’s use cases, the general consensus is that hydrogen is the energy transition’s leading “green molecule”.
Chief among its potential applications is decarbonising existing supply: in 2022, the world used 95mt of hydrogen across industry, agriculture and defence, a 3% increase over 2021. That production is currently 99% unabated, with 2022 outputs stemming c.70% from natural gas and c.30% (mostly in China) from coal.
Additionally, hydrogen offers potential to decarbonise industries that can’t feasibly be electrified directly. Here, long-haul transportation and heavy industry are particularly pertinent, with maritime shipping, long-haul trucking and aviation top candidates for decarbonisation in the former category and cement, steel and high-grade heat production top candidates in the latter.
According to the IEA’s net-zero scenario, these “novel” applications—only 0.1% of the global hydrogen demand today—account for 30% of global demand by 2030.
To meet this growing clean hydrogen demand and our broader net-zero goals, we’ll need to scale ultra-low-carbon hydrogen rapidly—and with efficiency top of mind.
Efficiency: a map and compass
The US Department of Energy‘s first-round Hydrogen Hub selections, which were announced in October 2023, varied across use cases, geographies and technologies. As the clean hydrogen industry looks to identify best-practice business strategies, it should set aside industry preconceptions and prioritise technologies that deliver the best carbon intensity, economic viability and speed to commercialisation.
In other words, clean hydrogen buildout should seek to maximise energy, cost and time efficiency.
8RH2: Delivering ultra-high-efficiency, ultra-low-carbon hydrogen production
At 8 Rivers, our 8RH2 clean hydrogen technology includes a game-changing innovation: the CO2 Convective Reformer. It achieves ultra-low carbon intensity via an economical, easily scalable process that overcomes the limitations of conventional fossil-fuel based and electric technologies. We believe this system’s best-in-class energy, cost and time efficiencies can provide an industry model for the carbon intensity, economic viability and speed to commercialisation the clean hydrogen economy needs.
Inherent carbon capture competes for best-in-class carbon intensity
By combining the pressurisation of reforming with the gas separation of steam methane reforming, 8RH2 keeps process and flue gasses both separate and pure, uncontaminated by nitrogen, oxygen and other elements in the outside air. This CO₂ separation enables carbon capture of above 99%, a rate significantly above the 90% and 95% maximum capture rates of small modular reactors and autothermal reforming, respectively.
8RH2’s 99%+ carbon capture competes on carbon intensity with electric hydrogen pathways. Additionally, by decarbonising widely available fuel sources, it enables the electrons generated by renewables to “focus” on where they can deliver their biggest impact: greening the electric grid.
By capturing carbon inherently, 8RH2 eliminates the need for more expensive, less effective back-end carbon capture systems. Consequently, this innovation lowers carbon intensity while increasing economic viability. Welded ducts, bayonet construction and in-shop fabrication further enhance system efficiency, all together yielding 5-10% cost savings compared to conventional hydrogen production systems.
This ability to compete on cost with conventional, “grey” hydrogen technologies without government subsidies insulates it from potential uncertainties about how clean energy incentives might be executed and whether they might be affected by future elections.
Speed to commercialisation
8RH2’s straightforward adjustment of conventional technologies makes the system easily approachable for industry stakeholders, facilitating a scalability that enables the speedy commercialisation that our energy transition goals require. While electric hydrogen faces challenges with electrolyser bottlenecks, policy uncertainties and renewable access, an approach to ultra-low-carbon hydrogen that focuses on carbon intensity over energy source can (with sufficient attention to eliminating upstream methane leakage) make the most of existing fossil fuel infrastructure to get a clean hydrogen supply chain scaled up and commercialised quickly.
Efficiency is paramount to speed
To meet our mid-century emissions-reduction goals, the world must scale hydrogen production cleanly, affordably and cost effectively. As the industry accelerates this key energy transition growth area, it must navigate how best to achieve that trifecta. The path is clear: groups looking to scale clean hydrogen must adopt a fuel-agnostic, results-first approach that prioritises carbon intensity, economic viability and speed to commercialisation.
Steve Milward is chief operating officer at 8 Rivers