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Argonne: Coal and Biomass Would Become the Leading Sources for Hydrogen

Coal is to become the largest source of hydrogen starting around 2030. Click to enlarge.

A report published this fall by Argonne National Laboratory analyzes potential hydrogen demand, production, and cost should the projected shift to a hydrogen-fueled transportation system occur.

Among the conclusions is that coal will match natural gas as the largest source of hydrogen by 2030, and then move into the lead, providing 26.5% of the hydrogen to fuel the hydrogen highway by 2050.

Biomass-derived hydrogen (via gasification) comes in second by 2050, with 23.9%, followed by distributed electrolysis, with 17.6%.

The report writers (researchers from Argonne and TA Engineering) used an optimistic, but intermediate, scenario for hydrogen fuel cell vehicle growth—that FCVs would account for 50% of all light vehicle stock by 2050. (The “President’s Hydrogen Initiative” estimates fuel cell vehicle penetration at nearly 100% by 2050.)

The hydrogen demand in the Argonne scenario is substantial: nearly 5.7 quads (quadrillion BTUs)—the energy of about 45 billion gallons of gasoline.

The researchers approached the issue by factoring in distribution of demand, and availability of proximate resources for the cost-effective production of hydrogen. They do not undertake a well-to-wheels analysis of the energy, greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions involved in each of these pathways.

They assumed that ultimately 24% of all hydrogen demand will be generated in non-metropolitan areas, but that there will be a gradual build-up to that share. Initial non-metropolitan travel is limited to non-metropolitan interstates.

Among the key assumptions for the forecast are:

  1. Each region will produce sufficient H2 to meet the region’s demand. They do not expect that to be the case ultimately, but chose to make this assumption to simplify this initial analysis.

  2. Relative resource availability in a region (i.e., the relative abundance of coal versus natural gas versus renewables, etc.) determines the likelihood of each resource being used to produce H2 in that region. (The levels of each resource will also be affected by the cost of producing the resource, but the report does not factor that in.)

  3. Steam-reforming of natural gas and electrolysis (both centralized and distributed) will be the methods used to produce H2 initially when H2 demand is very low.

  4. Both centralized and distributed production of H2 will be used throughout the time frame of this analysis.

  5. Centralized production will provide the H2 used in metropolitan areas and some non-metropolitan areas, while distributed production (H2 produced at service stations) will meet a large share of non-metropolitan area demand.

  6. Use of natural gas to produce H2 will be phased out completely by 2050.

Percentage contribution to hydrogen production by each source. Click to enlarge.

Over time, The report concludes that as demand grows over time, hydrogen will be produced from divergent sources, particularly coal (with carbon sequestration); renewables; and thermochemical water splitting by using advanced, high-temperature nuclear power.

The report does not directly consider the source of electricity for electrolysis, only the direct feedstock or mechanism. For example, coal doesn’t appear as a major source until 2030, despite the coal-generated electricity that will be used in electrolysis in preceding years.

Estimate of H2 Production in the US in Quadrillion BTU (Quads)
YearDistributed ProductionCentralized Production Total
Nat GasElect.Elect. Nat GasCoalBiomassWind SolarNuclear
2010 0.00 0.00 0.000032 0.000073 0.000000 0.000000 0.000000 0.000000 0.000000 0.000105
2020 0.004 0.002 0.035 0.075 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.116
2030 0.085 0.132 0.396 0.438 0.437 0.396 0.150 0.018 0.0140 2.065
2040 0.104 0.700 0.412 0.423 1.161 1.076 0.403 0.049 0.257 4.585
2050 0.000 0.996 0.412 0.000 1.501 1.354 0.535 0.063 0.812 5.673

There are two pathways to produce hydrogen from coal:

  • Central production pathway. Gasification of coal at large, central facilities produces hydrogen. These plants may or may not co-produce electricity or other products, and will be designed to allow capture and ultimately sequestration of carbon dioxide—of which extremely large amounts will be generated.

  • Alternate production pathway. Fischer-Tropsch fuels produced via coal liquefaction (also a substantial source of greenhouse gases) are transported through the existing petroleum pipeline distribution network to sub-central or distributed locations where they can then be reformed into hydrogen near the end user.

As with production, cost varies by region and by source in this analysis, just as petroleum fuel costs vary today across regions.

By 2050, the researchers project a national hydrogen average cost of $3.68 (current dollars) per gallon equivalent of gasoline. That varies from a high in Alaska of $6.65/GEG to a low of $2.97/GEG for the contiguous Pacific states.

Given current concerns over natural gas availability and pricing in the US, the Argonne assumptions on natural gas pricing for the analysis are too low, absent a dramatic reversal in pricing trends. (The report uses figures ranging from $5.03/mmBTU in 2010 running up to $7.23/mmBTU in 2050. On Wednesday, November 16, prices at the Henry Hub averaged $11.04/mmBTU.)

Substantially higher natural gas prices will likely accelerate the transition to the other feedstocks as well as push up the price of hydrogen in the shorter term.




It'll never happen.


That sound like we go a looong way and only finally back to the same point.

That sound like we gone thru the entire evolution cycle, and finally become a bacterial again.

That sound like we went thru stone age, bronze age, middle age, industrial age, computer age, atomic age and finally return to stone age... Except maybe that the first stone age was much cleaner.

Robert Schwartz

Lucas, You are correct. Hydrogen is a crock. but, if you have protons (and the corralary electrons) you can go anywhere.


They only looked at a 'cost effective' production. Including external costs (e.g. through greenhouse gases) or political measures would certainly change the picture and give more weight to renewable energy sources, especially in the long term. And emitting only water is very clean in my optinion, especially in the context of urban pollution. Emissions involved in production can be handled. I am optimistic.

Shirley E

Investing in different potential future energy systems is like investing in your own future retirement portfolio. It's great to have a few high-flyer long shots in there, so that if any of them come through you wind up a big winner. But they shouldn't form the basis of your long term plan any more than playing the lottery.

Hydrogen is quite speculative at this point because of the number of breakthroughs that will be required in a number of areas before it will ever compete economically. Lots of people are touting it right now, but lots of people were also touting high tech stocks in 2000. Many of those high flying companies don't even exist today, and it's only five years later. Every time you hear someone hawking fuel cells and hydrogen as THE solution, in your mind you should insert "high tech stocks" into the sentence.

Hydrogen is a long shot but worth pursuing as long as it's a minor part of the portfolio. The bulk of our investment should be in nearer term solutions (note the use of plural) that may be less exciting but have a much more visible road to success, and that will begin paying dividends almost immediately. Plug-in hybrids and biofuels are two such choices, in my opinion.


Saying that hydrogen wont work is incorrect. The technology already works, and who knows what advancements will be made in the coming years. Yes, we should be focusing on a broad portfolio of options, and hydrogen is one of them.

tom deplume

Maybe hydrogen ought to be called hypedrogen. It's like nuclear fusion which has been 5 years away from unity for the last 30 years. H2 is the energy darling of right wing and their fossil fuel sponsors in order to give them a green tint. If only the zinc lobby could match the bribes of the oil lobby the future would be much brighter.


When Hydrogen is provided with Oxygen and a source of ignition, it burns. But that is about all that is good about it. Some of the negatives:

1. It costs a lot to produce in volume.

2. It's practically impossible to contain.

3. No infrastructure exists to make it practical. It would cost Trillions to creat one.


I dont know if it would cost trillions to create the infrastructue. GM says that for $10-15 billion hydrogen could be provided to 70% of the USA. Maybe they're just hyping it up, but maybe its not as costly as once thought.

Robert McLeod

I think 10 - 15 billion _might_ cover the cost to convert a single large airport like LAX to hydrogen, with most of that going to the construction of new nuclear plants. Of course, it's not very helpful if the planes don't have anywhere else to land but that is the traditional infrastructure gap problem associated with hydrogen.

Shaukat H Khan

Have you thought of consuming less energy. Too much energy is consumed to support the 'junk life'


I agree with Jason. And I think it is important to put higher priority to this option before time has run out. This means: Lower energy consumption, change to renewable energy sources, and co2 and other emissions reduction. Hydrogen can be part of such a system, especially if produced from renewables. H2 could be used efficiently and in a flexible way. Costs will come down with experience and mass production, and it is possible to contain, for example in high pressure gas tanks for a start. For infrastructure, existing natural gas pipelines could be modified and used, this would not be such an impossible effort if wanted. Let oil get scarcer and prices rise more and a change will eventually come financially, probably not in the next few years, though. Regarding hybrids: Of course, cars should always be optimized, but this is rather fuel-independent. And biofuels: Good as a supply part, but with a limited potential unless you grow crops all over the country (with genetically modified plants or pesticides?). And you can't eat hydrogen...


There is a reason soo many countries around the world are sarting hydrogen pushes.

While we know SOME of out fuel will be synthetic and some will be bio we also know we cant count on any of those sources for all that we will need.

Hydrogen is simply the keystone. Its the final fuel.


Hydrogen and fuel cells are a lot less efficient than wires and batteries.  We have wires (with plenty of off-peak capacity going begging) and batteries today.  Batteries are getting to be phenominal (5 kW/kg!!!) and get cheaper and more durable, while hydrogen still needs precious-metal catalysts.

Hydrogen should be put on the back burner.  It's currently being hyped to prevent better solutions from coming to market.


Poet you should know better then to spout such nonsense.

You know as well as I that a fuel cell car uses the same batteries as an all electric car it just tends to use a smaller battery pack to cut costs.

As such hydrogen fuel cells and battery power both are meeting the same goal.

Also hydrogen can fuel things batteries can not. They foit together perfectly.


If you're disagreeing with me, W., first be sure that your foot isn't in your mouth.


I'm quietly optimistic about the future of pebble bed reactors which can offer much higher efficiencies then existing fuel rod designs. Up to 60% I hear. Once reactors become mor efficient then alectric cars might become plausible.

Now if only there was a more efficient method of extracting uranium out of the ground.

Also, generating electricity from the ionization of spent radioactive material has some potential too. Kind of a lot of potential on account of Uranium's one million year halflife. :)

Roger Arnold

Regardless of whether hydrogen has a future as a transportation fuel, I find this report short on insight. It's disppointing. If this represents the caliber of work being done at our national labs these days, we're in trouble.

The main thing that hydrogen has going for it is that it can be produced (comparatively) easily from a range of energy sources that don't produce CO2. But if we're going to rely on coal as our primary energy resource, then we'd be better off using it to make synthetic HC fuels, rather than H2. It's about the same efficiency, overall, and avoids the hard storage, distribution, and fuel cell cost problems that will have to be overcome to make hydrogen practical.

It can be argued that if all the CO2 from production of fuels from coal is sequestered, then hydrogen is a better option, environmentally. No CO2 is released when H2 is burned, whereas the C in any synthetic HC fuel does end up as CO2 released to the atmosphere.

That's true, but the argument can't be applied, if the means of supplying hydrogen is on-board reforming of F.T. liquids produced from coal. The reformer will release more CO2 and the hydrogen produced will deliver less power than if the F.T. liquids were simply burned in a high efficiency engine for a hybrid vehicle. Or in a high temperature SOFC combustion turbine that burns HC fuels directly and far exceeds the efficiency of an H2 fuel cell.

Of course, as E.P. points out, the most efficient and environmentally friendly option is to forget hydrogen and use electricity to charge batteries in a plug-in hybrid.

Shirley E

Personally, I don't believe all the issues for hydrogen will be worked out in time to make it a viable option for the transportation sector, even if they possibly can be worked out. But it might one day be competitive in certain niche applications, such as small scale portable electronics.

The differences between a battery EV and a fuel cell EV are huge, however. In one, you have a battery, essentially a solid state device that can take a lot of vibration, etc. The other requires a sophisticated system of pumps and valves, a high tech fuel containment system (this ain't your uncle's nylon gas tank and never will be), leak sensors, emergency cut off systems and monitoring software, plus a big zillion dollar conversion device containing platinum and ceramic plates that is very sensitive to vibration and that is killed by tiny fuel impurities, etc. Plus there's that whole pesky problem of a fueling or recharging infrastructure, one of which exists today (electricity) and the other not even close. The difference between these two systems is HUGE.

The next oil crisis is going to come a lot sooner than they will be able to work out all the issues on hydrogen and fuel cells. My prediction is that plug-ins and full electric vehicles will be on the market within ten years and will simply sweep hydrogen and fuel cells aside, as those will still be facing decades of necessary R&D and we STILL won't know how some of the problems will be solved. AKA, "and then a miracle happens."

Despite all this, I'd still support some level of research into hydrogen and fuel cells as they may eventually be good for some niche applications. And plus one never does know when a miracle might happen, I find them notoriously difficult to predict.

Harvey D

E-P - where can I find a secondary battery with a power density of 5KW/Kg for an extended period, not only for short 10 to 60 second pulses. What is its energy density in Wh/Kg and Wh/Litre and life (cycles) expectancy? If the energy density is close to 1000Wh/kg and it can be recharged 10 000 times, practical PHEVs and even EVs may not be too far away. Any idea of the cost per Kwh and time to recharge?

Shirley - I fully agree with you that affordable high performance batteries required for effective PHEVs and EVs will be around before affordable mobile vehicular fuel cells. Lets hope that the energy required to recharge the batteries will come for clean sources such as Hydro, Wind, Sun (and Nuclear?)but not from COAL, Crude oil, Natural gas, biofuels, ethanol etc.

E-P - where can I find a secondary battery with a power density of 5KW/Kg...
... for an extended period, not only for short 10 to 60 second pulses.
At 100 C discharge rate, you're going from full to flat in 36 seconds.  At 5 kW/kg, you only need 30 kg to get 150 kW (200 HP); 150 kg would net you 750 kW (1000 HP).  You might like to have more energy density, but aside from flying airplanes or powering weapons I don't see why you couldn't do with what they've got.
What is its energy density in Wh/Kg and Wh/Litre and life (cycles) expectancy?
Not stated, not stated, "thousands of cycles".
If the energy density is close to 1000Wh/kg and it can be recharged 10 000 times, practical PHEVs and even EVs may not be too far away.
Talk about moving the goalposts...

If a car needs 300 Wh/mile and the battery delivers 330 Wh/kg, you only need 270 kg of batteries to get 300 miles of range.  If you trade off peak discharge rate for density, that would not be too hard to fit in a conventional-looking vehicle.  Why you'd have to wait for another 3x improvement before you'll consider the job feasible, I can only put down to reactionary tendencies on your part.


"Impedance growth is one of the top failure modes of high power batteries and a major cause of power fade over the life of the battery. Our batteries are uniquely engineered (pat. pending) so their internal resistance (impedance) will decrease with their use. This is the opposite effect to most Li Ion cells which experience a growth in their internal resistance as they are cycled at high rates or temperatures. This is a significant benefit in applications requiring long calendar life such as hybrid electric vehicles or in devices that simply must work such as medical devices or mission critical systems."

Sounds like they will last a long time, the capacity will diminish over time (more rapidly under high discharge rates) but they shouldn't suddenly 'fail' as typical packs tend to from high internal resistance.

The chart on this page gives an idea as to the rate of capacity reduction when used to 100%:

Harvey D

E-P: I think that we did not put the same interpretation on the release from A123Systems.

A 5x increase on power density of lithium-Ion batteries would only increase the current power density form 0.2Kw/Kg to 1 Kw/Kg not necessarily to 5 Kw/Kg which would represent a 50x increase.

Considering the huge decrease claimed in recharge and discharge time, a 50x ++ increase in Power density may be possible for short periods but we don't know that yet and even less so for extended periods.

10x increase in # of cylces would represent an increase form 1 000 to 10 000 and that would normally be sufficient.

Energy density of 300Wh/kg is about what Electrovaya is already claiming with their battery pack. A123Systems, and similar units, could probably do much better (2x or 3x ?) or between 600 and 900Wh/Kg but it was not stated. An energy density of 330Wh/Kg would be enough for PHEVs but somewhat limited for full EVs.

Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Harvey D

Correction: The second paragragh on my previous comment should read: A 5x increase in continuous power density of current lithium-Ion batteries, i.e. from 0.1 Kw/Kg to 0.5 Kw/Kg would not necessarily mean an increase to 5Kw/Kg which would represent a 50x power density gain. From the new charts supplied by A123Systems, it seems that the gain in continous power density may be as high as 27x or about 2.7Kw/Kg.

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