Mapping the Landscape of Clean Hydrogen

As the US moves toward achieving its goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050, clean hydrogen has emerged as a critical resource for decarbonizing energy-intensive sectors of the economy.

A new report from the Industrial Innovation Initiative and Carbon Solutions, The Landscape of Clean Hydrogen: An Outlook for Industrial Hubs in the United States, has mapped several considerations for understanding the current landscape and future outlook for the development of a domestic clean hydrogen economy.

Opportunities to jump-start clean hydrogen production and use are informed by each region’s industrial and energy landscape. To accompany the report, the team also created an interactive map to help illustrate potential synergies between the various resources, industries, markets, and geographic characteristics of different regions across the US.

Current Hydrogen Production in the United States

While carbon capture can be used to decarbonize hydrogen production at steam methane reformer (SMR) based facilities, electrolysis is often seen as the long-term future of clean hydrogen production due to a simpler engineering process and its reliance on water and clean electricity rather than fossil fuels. Electrolysis also provides a nearly complete reduction of on-site GHG and criteria air pollutants compared to SMR, and a complete reduction in upstream energy carbon intensity if electricity is supplied by new builds of renewable energy. 

Hydrogen Production at Petroleum Refineries

Petroleum refineries turn crude oil into transportation fuels, energy products, and other chemical products. Clean hydrogen can help reduce the carbon impact of sustained demand for petroleum products. Hydrogen can also act as a chemical feedstock for sustainable aviation fuel, drop-in renewable fuels, and synthetic fuels produced at refineries that convert to producing clean fuels.

Nitrogen Fertilizer Use and Hydrogen Production for Ammonia

Ammonia, produced by combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen in what is known as the Haber-Bosch process, utilizes around 3 million tons of hydrogen each year, making ammonia production the second highest hydrogen consumer of any industrial sector, after petroleum refining. Most carbon emissions attributed to commercial scale ammonia plants originate from hydrogen production via SMR units. If clean hydrogen is used, then it would be able to reduce the majority of emissions from the ammonia sector.

Activities within the US Iron and Steel Sector

Clean hydrogen can be used as a low- or zero-carbon energy source and reducing agent to decarbonize steelmaking, a major contributor to US economic activity and industrial GHG emissions. Hydrogen can be used as both an energy source and chemical reactant to produce direct reduced iron, a form of processed iron ore that can be melted in an electric arc furnace to produce finished steel. Using hydrogen-based direct reduced iron in an electric arc furnace further reduces emissions from steelmaking as compared to blast furnace processes.

Biofuel Operations as Potential Markets for Clean Hydrogen to Create Renewable and Synthetic Fuel

Clean hydrogen is an enabling feedstock in the production of biofuels such as sustainable aviation fuels and drop-in renewable fuels. These fuels can help cut emissions from otherwise hard-to-decarbonize modes of transport such as aviation, marine shipping, and freight transport, that typically rely on combustion engines. Existing biofuel operations, such as ethanol plants, can be retrofitted with relatively low-cost carbon capture to provide CO2, which can be combined with clean hydrogen to create low-carbon synthetic fuels and chemicals.

Aviation and Heavy-duty Truck Fueling Locations as Potential Delivery Sites for Hydrogen-based Renewable and Synthetic Fuels

Hydrogen-based drop-in renewable fuels can be used by a variety of hard-to-decarbonize transportation sectors, from marine and rail shipping to air travel and long-haul freight trucking. Large airports, a major intended offtaker of renewable fuels, are distributed throughout the country, but particularly concentrated in the Northeast and Great Lakes. Truck stops along the national highway system can also act as delivery sites for renewable fuel.

Potential Permanent Carbon Storage Formations and Current Hydrogen Production

Nearly all the high-capacity hydrogen production facilities shown on this map involve the fossil fuel-based steam methane reforming process to make hydrogen. To decarbonize existing SMR operations, carbon capture equipment must capture CO2  from high-concentration process emissions and/or stationary combustion of fossil fuel then deliver this CO2  to where it can be permanently stored in geologic formations.

Location of Existing US Hydrogen Electrolysis

Electrolysis produces hydrogen and oxygen from water through the application of electricity across a material membrane. When supplied with carbon-free or renewable electricity, electrolytic hydrogen can achieve a very low or virtually zero carbon intensity. The 42 known electrolyzers in the US make up a small fraction of national hydrogen production, with facilities ranging in electrical capacity from 120 kW to 5 MW. These facilities can produce about three thousand metric tons of hydrogen per year if operating at full time capacity.121

US Industrial Fuel Use by Sector

Clean hydrogen’s low lifecycle carbon intensity can reduce GHGs when used as a source of heat and power to displace fossil fuels in industrial applications. New uses of hydrogen combustion for process heat would be most effectively applied to units and processes that require large volumes of high temperature heat, such as those used in petroleum refining, steelmaking, and chemicals production.

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