Natural gas could play key role for clean hydrogen energy

Researchers at West Virginia University are attempting to use hydrogen energy as a clean energy alternative.

By Jake Stump July 26, 2022
Courtesy of: West Virginia University

Energy and Power Insights

  • Researchers at West Virginia University are researching a way to make hydrogen energy a viable fuel option to decarbonize the U.S. power and industrial sectors.
  • When hydrogen comes into contact with oxygen, it combusts and only leaves water behind as a byproduct, making this process a very sustainable and environmentally conscious energy alternative.
  • The team is actively working to create coating to fight the harsh effects that hydrogen has on metal, which includes extreme temperatures quick-acting corrosion.

More than 50 years after scientists first coined the term “hydrogen economy,” the movement to make hydrogen energy a predominant global fuel source could be gaining traction thanks to research led by one West Virginia University engineer.

Xingbo Liu, professor in theDepartment of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will help develop new, cutting-edge coatings for the blades of turbines used in large-scale power generation. These protective layers will be able to withstand the extreme heat and corrosion of hydrogen combustion but work with the principles and technologies of existing natural gas turbines, primarily in power plants.

The research is promising enough to have early investment from business, and if successful, could play a critical role in linking the energy industry West Virginia has to the energy industry it wants, enabling an energy revolution that’s more like an evolution, where clean power builds on existing resources – in this case, the state’s power generating plants and natural gas reserves.

Most of the funding for Liu’s project comes from a $2 million Department of Energy grant geared toward decarbonizing the U.S. power and industrial sectors, advancing clean energy manufacturing and improving America’s economic competitiveness.

“There are several ways to turn a turbine and generate power,” said Liu, also associate dean for research and endowed chair of engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “All the most popular ways today use heat. Today, in about two-thirds of turbines, we burn coal or we burn natural gas to turn a turbine, with coal contributing about 20% and natural gas about 40% of the total power we generate in the U.S. Less often, we use a nuclear reaction to heat water and generate steam.”

After nuclear energy, he added, hydropower is the next most common source of electricity, with other clean energies such as wind and solar power bringing up the rear.

When hydrogen reacts with oxygen and combusts, it produces only water in the form of steam – no carbon dioxide, no other byproduct. That steam can spin the blades of a turbine, turning a generator and producing electricity. Because hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel but produces only water as waste, it’s been part of the clean energy conversation since the 1970s. Nonetheless, entirely replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen as a power source is a vision for a fairly distant future. Liu’s team is focused on a more immediate goal: a turbine that uses a blend of both hydrogen and natural gas as fuel.

“以氢为动力的涡轮机的原理与以天然气为动力的涡轮机是一样的,但有了氢,燃烧特性就不同于天然气,”刘说。“氢燃烧有两个独特的特点。一是产生的反应是纯蒸汽,具有很强的腐蚀性。另一个是温度。燃烧非常热,燃烧温度有时甚至高于金属组件的熔点。”

The hottest part of any turbine is the blades, and Liu’s research is focused on creating coatings that will keep a turbine’s blades from corroding, oxidizing or even melting when hydrogen fuel is added to natural gas.

“People use coatings all the time as simple as nonstick cookware or coatings on eyeglass lenses,” Liu said. “In the case of turbines, there have been two different kinds of coatings. One is called the environmental barrier coating, where you protect your component from the corrosive environment. And the other coating is a thermal barrier coating. It’s a heat insulator, like the oven mitt you wear when you cook. Most of our research is around the thermal barrier coating.”

Liu’s study, “High-Entropy Alloy-based Coating to protect Critical Components in Hydrogen Turbine Power System,” focuses specifically on coatings that are made from a mix of different elements.

“Typically, the materials we are using today have one major element, such as copper or aluminum,” Liu said. “It’s not pure aluminum, it’s an aluminum alloy, but the majority of the alloy is aluminum. With a high-entropy alloy, we don’t have one major element, it’s a bunch of things together, and each one of them has a similar composition. It’s basically a stew, and that gives us some unique properties that we think have hope for this application.”

如果WVU团队能够设计出一种涂层,成功地保护涡轮机叶片不受氢的高温和腐蚀性蒸汽的影响,那么发电厂将朝着使用氢和天然气混合燃料的方向迈出关键的一步,减少它们的碳排放,增加作为能源生产燃料的天然气的需求。但刘认为,这并不是氢气能给西弗吉尼亚州带来的唯一好处,在2019年,天然气首次超过煤炭,成为这个山地州能源经济的最大贡献者。

他说:“在西弗吉尼亚州,我们可以获得天然气。“我们位于三大天然气田之一的马塞勒斯页岩地区。今天,我们只需要燃烧这些气体。但现在95%或更多的氢气是由天然气制成的。”

While much of the research will happen at WVU’s Statler College, the network of collaboration extends beyond the University through partnerships with the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Praxair Surface Technologies, a subsidiary of Linde, the world’s largest industrial gas company.

Liu emphasized that, right now, the process of blending hydrogen into natural gas for combustion is “still at the research and development stage. Although there have been demonstrations of hydrogen-fueled turbines, no one has run a turbine with hydrogen commercially.”

不过,随着一些研究人员探索氢在发电厂之外的其他用途,这方面的进展正在加速。

“There’s currently an experimental plane that can run on hydrogen,” Liu said. “Google ‘hydrogen plane’ and you can watch the video. Of course, that’s just a demonstration, and it’s not something you can use today. But that’s what research is about, right? You try something new, try new ideas and though some of them will fail, some are going to become useful.”


Jake Stump



Author Bio:Jake Stump, director, West Virginia University Research Communications