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Don't Forget about Biomass Gasification for Hydrogen

Shayne Willette
Apr 21, 2020


Since 2019, one of the hottest topics in the energy realm has been hydrogen, and for good reason. Due to a variety of factors, the element has been recognized as a key piece of decarbonization initiatives. Namely, the hydrogen sector’s coupling ability allows usage across various energy sectors, such as electricity, transportation, industry, and buildings.

There are various production pathways for the molecule, each with their own advantages and advantages. Electrolytic hydrogen from renewables has received a lot of media coverage recently, but another production method exists that seems left out of the common discourse surrounding hydrogen: biomass gasification. Biomass gasification, typically used to produce syngas, is a hydrogen pathway with carbon-negative potential that uses a controlled process involving heat, steam, and oxygen to convert biomass to hydrogen and carbon dioxide without combustion. Feedstocks for the method include municipal solid waste, energy crops, agricultural waste, and industrial waste.

Current Landscape of Hydrogen Production

Hydrogen is often associated with a color, whether it’s grey, blue, or green. These colors represent key distinctions in the emissions profiles for the various ways hydrogen is produced:

  • Grey hydrogen is hydrogen produced from fossil fuels.
  • Blue hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels with carbon-capture technology added.
  • Green hydrogen is produced via electrolysis using electricity generated by renewables.

Presently, the market is dominated by grey hydrogen as it is a well-established and low cost method. Grey hydrogen accounts for over 95% of all hydrogen production. Blue and green hydrogen have gained significant attention as costs for these methods have decreased significantly. While they are not on par with grey hydrogen, these pathways are expected to become competitive.

While these colors are not formal, definitions vary depending on whom you ask. Some say green hydrogen should be expanded to include other clean hydrogen production pathways beyond electrolysis. Biomass gasification has not been assigned a color, though its usage for hydrogen production is not a new process. Biomass gasification roots in the US actually date back to the 1990s with installations at wastewater treatment plants.

Hydrogen’s Potential for Gasification

Producing hydrogen via gasification aids in solving two environmental problems: mounting waste stocks (e.g., landfills) and the carbon-intensive hydrogen production process. Estimates state that the world produces over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually, with 12% of that figure being plastics.

On the demand side of the equation, total annual hydrogen demand worldwide is around 330 million tons of oil equivalent. Even if green or blue hydrogen captured 10% of total production, that would be a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

What hydrogen production will look like by 2050 is heavily influenced by the decisions we make today. As the world continues to push for decarbonization, it is important to explore all solutions on the table. As Jean-Louis Kindler, CEO of Ways2H, puts it, “to dramatically reduce both waste and emissions, we need every economically feasible and environmentally sustainable path to generating more energy and fuel.”