An illustration depicting hydrogen molecules against a blue background.
Credit: Rafael Classen / Creative Common

Illinois business leaders and researchers are hoping to leverage hundreds of millions of federal dollars to develop a thriving “hydrogen economy.” 

The vision involves using the state’s plentiful nuclear power and renewable energy to separate hydrogen from water, and then using the resulting fuel to power industrial processes and heavy-duty vehicles.

The Midwest Alliance for Clean Hydrogen, or MachH2, is among more than 30 contenders seeking funding from a $7 billion U.S. Department of Energy program to jumpstart six to 10 regional hydrogen hubs across the country. Each will be aimed at producing and distributing pure hydrogen that is thus far in short supply. 

The coalition behind the Illinois bid includes universities, utilities, economic development agencies, manufacturers, Argonne National Laboratory, and power producers like Constellation Energy and Invenergy, which has launched its own pilot program producing hydrogen in Illinois.

Jon Horek, director of hydrogen project development for Invenergy, said the federal funding can hopefully help solve the “chicken-and-egg problem” of developing hydrogen “demand and supply at the same time — production and consumption at the same time.” 

Abundant yet elusive 

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and some see it as key to a clean energy transition, capable of replacing fossil fuels in vehicles and industry. But just getting pure hydrogen to users and fueling stations is a challenge; hydrogen occurs only in tiny quantities naturally in its purified form. 

Currently, most hydrogen used industrially is purified or produced on-site, and hydrogen fueling stations for transportation are not common. But backers of the hub hope to change that, with hydrogen producers and hydrogen pipelines connecting entities stretching from northern Wisconsin south through Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky, and east to Ohio and Michigan.

MachH2 was one of 33 proposals to receive official encouragement to move forward from the Department of Energy, out of 79 applications submitted. A final proposal is due in April. The program was created by the Infrastructure Investment Act. 

Jay Walsh, vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois system, said the Midwest and Illinois especially are ideal locations for a hydrogen hub, given the robust transportation and manufacturing infrastructure and academic resources. 

“There’s distribution infrastructure — we’re located at the crossroads of the U.S.,” Walsh said. “Transportation is an important sector to decarbonize, and we’re good at transportation: water, rail, air, and of course trucking. We have all of those components, and add on top of that the talent and ability to create the talent — the workforce development.”

Clean, green hydrogen? 

Currently most of the hydrogen used in fuel cells or industry is created by splitting hydrogen in methane (CH4) away from the carbon, usually using steam — which creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct — or energy-intensive pyrolysis, which creates pure carbon. 

A cleaner way to produce hydrogen is from water, with a process known as electrolysis. But that also takes electricity, which often means greenhouse gas emissions. Though the gas is clear, hydrogen is described with a rainbow of colors depending on its source and sustainability. Hydrogen obtained from water with renewable energy is often referred to as “green hydrogen,” and hydrogen obtained thanks to nuclear energy is known as “pink hydrogen.”

“Illinois has a larger percentage of its electricity from nuclear than any other state,” Walsh said. “We also expect to be using solar and wind power” to produce pure hydrogen, with renewables increasingly being installed in Illinois, mandated by 2021 legislation to totally decarbonize the electricity sector.

“What distinguishes this hub is all the power producers in it are carbon-free power producers,” said Horek, noting that other hub proposals would produce hydrogen powered by fossil fuels. “For every sector that’s decarbonizing, there’s probably some technology folks may think about” that could utilize hydrogen. “The point of the hub is to continue those conversations and build that uptake.” 

Bioenergy company Marquis sees hydrogen as essential to decarbonizing aviation and shipping. The element is crucial for creating sustainable aviation biofuel from corn, woody waste or other biomass, explained Jennifer Aurandt-Pilgrim, Marquis’ director of innovation and market development. 

“We take the hydrogen and ethanol and run it over a catalyst, that connects the hydrogen with the ethanol to make a long-chain hydrocarbon,” said Aurandt-Pilgrim. “We’re turning biofuels into alkanes — jet fuel. That is really driven by using that hydrogen to make those long-chain hydrocarbons.” 

The company also plans to create “renewable” biodiesel at a sprawling new industrial site from which the fuel can be shipped around the world via railroads or the Illinois River, which leads to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. A Department of Energy-funded hydrogen hub could help production scale and lower costs.

Marquis’ corn ethanol plant produces about 400 million gallons of ethanol per year, 1 million tons of high-protein animal feed, and about 1.2 million tons of biogenic carbon dioxide emissions. But some of that carbon dioxide, along with other carbon oxides near the Marquis industrial site, could be turned into more ethanol in a “fermentation” process pioneered in part by Argonne. Marquis is planning to partner with LanzaTech, another member of the MachH2 coalition, to use this process at their site. 

“You increase the same kernel of corn’s yield by 50% with no more land use, because we’re bringing hydrogen in,” said LanzaTech vice president of government programs John Holladay.

Capturing carbon, replacing carbon

Aurandt-Pilgrim said it will take time to scale the carbon dioxide-to-ethanol process up. In the meantime, Marquis is planning to sequester carbon dioxide from its ethanol production under the site of the 3,500-acre Marquis Industrial Complex. It also plans to sequester carbon dioxide at its facility in Wisconsin.  

The Mt. Simon sandstone formation in Illinois is considered ideal for carbon sequestration, but the concept has had a rocky history in the state. Ambitious carbon sequestration plans at the Prairie State and FutureGen coal plants never materialized, and an ongoing proposal by the company Navigator to build a carbon dioxide pipeline and sequestration site in Illinois faces massive community opposition.

Aurandt-Pilgrim said that Marquis is in the process of obtaining needed permits from the EPA for sequestration, and since it is not piping the carbon dioxide offsite, the company doesn’t expect local opposition. The ability to sequester carbon is not essential to the sustainable aviation fuels plant and other hydrogen hub-related projects moving forward, she said.

Meanwhile, Holladay sees another way hydrogen can cut carbon emissions in local and global industries. LanzaTech makes technology to capture industrial carbon emissions — carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide — which makes the carbon available for everyday manufacturing uses

“In other words, carbon dioxide is being transformed into essential materials made today from petroleum and natural gas,” Holladay said. “Hydrogen allows us to capture even more industrial carbon emissions, which will help our local industries be better stewards and more competitive in global markets. For example, our partners are making dresses, running shoes, bottles, and cleaning products that started as carbon emissions from steel production.”  

Fuel cells and hydrogen engines 

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are not the central purpose of the federally funded hubs, but the production and distribution of pure hydrogen would enable fueling stations for vehicles, backers said. 

A hydrogen fuel cell can power cars, trucks or other vehicles by basically separating the negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons in hydrogen to create an electrical current, with the only emissions being water vapor. The fuel cell essentially powers an electric vehicle that never needs to be plugged in, as long as the hydrogen fuel tank can be replenished. 

That can be a big “if” given that little hydrogen fueling infrastructure exists today, and it’s hard to grasp an advantage over electric cars or buses, with the recent proliferation of electric charging stations. Total sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles number in the low thousands, almost half worldwide being in California, as of a 2017 study.

In 2016, Michigan Public Radio explored then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s statement that “four miracles” would be needed to make hydrogen fuel cell cars viable: cheaper fuel cells, cleanly produced hydrogen, lighter hydrogen storage tanks on vehicles, and, crucially, a hydrogen distribution network. “If you need four miracles, that’s unlikely. Saints only need three miracles,” Chu told MIT Technology Review.

Jamie Fox, a Chile-based principal analyst at Interact Analysis which has focused on the sector, said he doubts hydrogen fuel cell cars will ever catch on. “It’s too expensive, and it’s too late to catch up with battery electric,” he said. 

But heavy vehicles that have trouble holding enough electricity in a battery could be prime candidates. A major goal of the proposed hub is helping to power industries and transport modes that are “not easily electrified,” as Walsh said, including aviation and heavy manufacturing.

Fox noted that early-stage hydrogen-fueled trains already exist in Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, and they “might make sense somewhere where you can’t have an overhead line [for electricity] due to the terrain.” He noted that battery performance suffers in cold temperatures, perhaps opening another opportunity for hydrogen fuel cells that fare better comparatively.  

Meanwhile, hydrogen can also be burned in an internal combustion engine similar to a gasoline or diesel engine, and conventional internal combustion engines can be converted to burn hydrogen. This reaction produces no carbon dioxide or public health-harming particulate matter, though it can produce nitrogen oxide. Hydrogen internal combustion engines have not been deployed widely, though some sports cars have used the technology and engine manufacturers like Cummins are increasingly considering it as a way to cut carbon emissions.

Interact Analysis reported that its research “shows that mass production of hydrogen ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles is set to take off within the next 5 years. Currently, the TCO [total cost of ownership] is unfavorable compared to traditional ICE vehicles, but shipments will reach 58,000 by 2030” internationally. 

Jim Nebergall, general manager of hydrogen engine business at Cummins, wrote that hydrogen internal combustion engines could be ideal for long-haul trucking and “harsh conditions,” while hydrogen fuel cells make more sense for lighter vehicles. He acknowledged that it’s “a running joke in the industry that hydrogen cars are always 10 years away,” but he wrote that interest in hydrogen internal combustion engines could drive the availability of hydrogen, boosting fuel cells’ prospects:

“As these commercial applications become mainstream, hydrogen fueling networks will appear to serve them. Conceivably, these limited networks could then be used by personal hydrogen cars. Hydrogen engines are just around the corner, so hydrogen cars may have a shot at revival within less than ten years after all.” 

Meanwhile hydrogen gas stored under high pressure is explosive, a liability that may make its use less popular, especially for vehicles. But proponents are unfazed. 

“There are safety issues with every energy source,” Walsh said, citing lithium-ion batteries that can catch on fire. “These can be handled correctly.” 

Innovation and deployment 

Scientists and engineers can likely find new ways to pursue Chu’s “four miracles” and make hydrogen production more sustainable and less costly, and more available for everyday people. For example, Chinese researchers in 2021 announced that nanoporous cubic silicon carbide could be used to harness sunlight directly to make hydrogen gas from water.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with partners recently announced their process to make pure hydrogen from methane without carbon dioxide emissions, using a catalyst to produce solid pure carbon and “blue hydrogen,” or hydrogen from natural gas with zero carbon emissions. Marquis is also planning to explore blue hydrogen production in the future, Aurandt-Pilgrim said. 

“A lot of energy sources have had to go through a phase where there was an initial investment before that energy source became reasonable to use,” Walsh said. “We’ve had many decades of effort on producing batteries — lithium-ion battery work has been going on for literally decades. There is an imperative here; the imperative is we really need to have cleaner sources of energy.” 

Meanwhile, he said the technology already exists to create a hydrogen-based energy economy in the Midwest, and MachH2’s hub would focus on tapping such existing knowledge and scaling up for economic benefit in the nearer term.   

“This hub is not for fundamental research — the university research is in moving the technologies forward and then evaluating the technologies as they get deployed, making sure we have what we need,” Walsh said. “There is a transformation that’s going to be happening here. It’s probably less impactful immediately to most people in society because of the sectors we’re working in at first. But this will be happening and there will be job opportunities.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.