News Article

Hydrogen May Flow Soon, but Natural Gas Should Remain, Says Sapphire Technologies CEO

March 13, 2023

Speaking to natural gas’ role in the United States’ clean energy transition, Sarhan told NGI that “over time, anything hydrocarbon-based has been considered a pollutant, and in a purist sense, it absolutely is. But I do not believe it should go away. I do not believe natural gas should disappear, the same way I do not believe hydrogen should be the end-all, be-all solution to everything.”

After the Los Angeles City Council last month voted to transition the city’s largest natural gas-fired plant to green hydrogen by 2030, there are still some “areas of concern,” Sapphire Technologies Inc. CEO Freddie Sarhan said.

According to LA100, a study and roadmap for the city’s best means to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2045 or sooner, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) should work to transition its four owned and operated in-basin power plants to renewable fuels, green hydrogen or natural gas with renewable offsets.

Regulators took an initial step last month in approving a motion to open the regulatory process for the Scattergood Generating Station (SGS) Green Hydrogen project. If the LADWP’s proposal receives final approval, the agency plans to transition the 876 MW SGS to green hydrogen by 2030.

The LADWP noted in a presentation it must also decommission two of its three natural gas-fired units in 2024.

Speaking to natural gas’ role in the United States’ clean energy transition, Sarhan told NGI that “over time, anything hydrocarbon-based has been considered a pollutant, and in a purist sense, it absolutely is. But I do not believe it should go away. I do not believe natural gas should disappear, the same way I do not believe hydrogen should be the end-all, be-all solution to everything.”

That said, the CEO for the Cerritos, CA-based energy recovery system company noted that while industrial gas turbines are “not renewable, but clean tech,” attention to global warming has been “cyclic over the last 20-30 years.

“In the early 2000s, there were incentives. We were selling micro-turbines, solar was becoming more popular and more cost-effective and we were focused on the climate. Fast forward 10 years, all of a sudden, the climate’s not that important, it’s not a problem. Well, from a scientific standpoint, it was still a problem. We just didn’t focus on it.”

Now, after city, state and federal regulators have spent the last few years creating or ramping up clean energy targets, “people are taking notice, and there’s a lot of pressure on companies to do the right thing.

“As that happens, some people have answers, technical answers and they’re implementing them, and others maybe revert to greenwashing because that’s all they can do…for the time being,” Sarhan said.

While Sarhan said he considered hydrogen a feasible technology to achieve some of the clean energy targets, “I don’t think every last mile of natural gas pipeline will be changed to hydrogen, nor do I think it should be changed to hydrogen, because I think natural gas is still a relatively clean fuel.”

Sapphire’s own FreeSpin In-Line Turboexpander (FIT) can be used within natural gas midstream infrastructure or at liquefied natural gas terminal stations to convert wasted pressure from the gas into electricity. With advanced magnetics, FIT “converts kinetic energy into electric energy by spinning a radial turbine that is coupled to a high-speed generator, and then the entire system is levitated in a magnetic field. So there’s no oil or lubricant other than the gas itself,” Sarhan added.

Solutions To Hydrogen’s Problems

And while FIT can be used in midstream applications involving hydrogen, currently “there are two areas of concern” for Sapphire’s technology, and for general midstream infrastructure, Sarhan noted.

“One is the leak,” Sarhan said.

A study commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) tested 5%, 10%, 20% and 50% hydrogen-methane blends in certain components of pipeline infrastructure. They found that as the concentration of hydrogen increased in the gas blend, there was a greater chance of pipeline leaks.

When leaks did occur, both hydrogen and methane seeped from infrastructure.

“I feel more comfortable that there are solutions that exist for that, there are technologies in the hydrogen space, whether it’s vessels with carbon fiber, or sealing technologies that can solve that problem, but it is a challenge. If you try to blend hydrogen in hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline, those technologies have to be implemented in those pipelines – if the percentage of hydrogen is high enough. I think that’s a concern that needs to be solved if we’re going to move high volumes of hydrogen,” Sarhan said.

In Sapphire’s own technology, the fix is “relatively simple. We’re not as worried about the leakage,” Sarhan said.

However, “We would require significant changes to the current natural gas product to satisfy the hydrogen embrittlement challenge,” the second concern when injecting hydrogen into natural gas infrastructure, he said.

Hydrogen embrittlement is the process of metals becoming brittle as a result of hydrogen’s contact with the material.

Though, “again, if the percentage of hydrogen blended with natural gas is low enough, it’s not as big a concern…If we’re talking about pure hydrogen, then it is a concern. Again, there’s lots of technological developments happening regarding that. There are certain materials that are not susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement, we just need to design turboexpanders – such as ours – or compressors, or pipelines to be able to handle that. There’s still some work that has to happen,” Sarhan said.

No Technology Left Unused

And while it has its drawbacks, Sarhan said he believed hydrogen may play a large role in the energy transition, with the help of natural gas infrastructure.

“I think if we can get gas turbines to burn 100% hydrogen, then absolutely it does. I’m really a believer of multiple technologies working together.

In the case of a completely zero-carbon transition, excluding any kind of hydrocarbon solutions, Sarhan noted that solar and wind “are a clear solution.”

“…Geothermal, hydropower, turboexpanders like our technology, hydrogen-driving fuel cells. I think all of these, and overall energy efficiency – if we consume less energy, then we need to produce less of it – battery storage coupled with other technologies,” also are on the table.

“I’m a believer that all of these things are good, and I think that we need them all. I do not believe hydrogen is the end-all, be-all, and it’s not the answer to all of our problems.”

As for natural gas, Sarhan noted that changing tax laws and the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have been beneficial for both hydrogen and natural gas’ use.

“Fortunately, the U.S. government is spending a lot of money, and will be spending a lot of money over the next 10 years under the IRA. I believe that with enough money,” a large-scale application of hydrogen fuel “is something that could be feasible.”

In the meantime, natural gas still rules the pipelines, and Sapphire’s turboexpanders can work to reduce emissions further.

In October, Tallgrass Energy Partners announced it would be installing dozens of Sapphire’s turboexpanders across its gas network over the next three years. That project is currently in the works, Sarhan noted.

“When we look at the midstream application, when we look at Tallgrass, I believe why it’s resonating with these companies is because they’re using their existing assets. They’re not going out and branching out and doing a wind farm or a solar farm that they don’t have experience in,” Sarhan said.

“They know how to transport gasses over long distances, and we have enabled them to produce clean electricity using their existing assets, selling the commodities that they’re used to selling. And we’re offsetting any kind of carbon footprint that they have, not all their carbon footprint, but we’re helping move them into a net-zero direction. And I think that’s why it’s resonating a lot in the U.S. and the U.S. midstream. They’re already moving these molecules, and we’re giving them a way to produce power with an existing infrastructure.”