A thermocatalytic decomposition process that converts methane into hydrogen and creates carbon solids — while emitting no CO2 — shows promise to support the creation of carbon-free microgrids and the ability to meet emissions reduction goals.

Researchers from the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and West Virginia University, in collaboration with industry partners Southern California Gas and C4-MCP, say the hydrogen developed by their process could be used in fuel cells for transportation and large-scale energy storage. The carbon solids products have uses in manufacturing applications such as electronics, medical devices, aerospace composite materials and building systems. Commercial sale of the carbon products would offset the cost of hydrogen production.

Former PNNL research engineer John Hu — currently an endowed chair professor of the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at WVU — discovered a nickel-based catalyst and processes that could cleanly convert methane into hydrogen and carbon during pyrolysis. Unlike other catalysts Hu had used, the nickel-based catalyst formulation stayed anchored to its support structure while growing carbon nanocrystals. This anchoring could enable the recovery of pure carbon nanotubes and nanofibers as well as catalyst regeneration.

Hu first published his results in 2017, after which he received funding through the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to further develop his work toward a goal of clean hydrogen.

The TCD process developed uses a novel bimetallic catalyst to produce hydrogen. Solid carbon that accumulates on the catalyst is washed and separated for industrial use while the metallic precursors are re-synthesized and recycled back into the reactor. The closed-loop cycle allows for continuous catalyst replacement while emitting zero carbon dioxide emissions, according to PNNL.

The process could help California achieve its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels. As part of that goal, the state aims to replace 5 million standard gas-powered vehicles with low- or zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Those targets will also help the state meet health-based air quality requirements established in the federal Clean Air Act.

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