Feds award GE $13M to research hydrogen power

Senior engineer Bassam Abdelnabi adjusts instrumentation in the combustion test facility at the GE Research headquarters in Niskayuna. The facility is the site of research on use of hydrogen to fuel gas turbines.
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Senior engineer Bassam Abdelnabi adjusts instrumentation in the combustion test facility at the GE Research headquarters in Niskayuna. The facility is the site of research on use of hydrogen to fuel gas turbines.

NISKAYUNA General Electric is receiving $13 million from the federal government toward development of power equipment that  burns hydrogen in addition to — or instead of — natural gas.

The U.S. Department of Energy grants are part of the drive to decarbonize the generation of electricity. President Biden has set a carbon-free power grid as a national goal for 2035, and similar initiatives are in place in New York and some other states, with hydrogen one of the paths that potentially leads to those goals.

Development of the equipment needed to reach those ambitious goals is underway at corporate research facilities like the one GE operates in Niskayuna.

The DOE this month announced grants of $7 million for GE Research in Niskayuna and $6 million for GE Gas Power in Greenville, South Carolina. 

GE Research will focus on increasing efficiency and reducing emissions with new components that burn hydrogen or a hydrogen-natural gas mix. GE Gas Power will adapt existing designs to run efficiently on 100% hydrogen gas, rather than 100% natural gas, as is most commonly used now.

Three other companies will split $11.9 million for four other projects as part of the same round of grants. Each looks at a different aspect of improving the generation of hydrogen in an environmentally friendly way and improving the efficiency of power plants.

In Niskayuna, Keith McManus, technology manager for combustion at GE Research, said the team there is working on multiple angles at the same time, figuring out what percentage from 1% to 100% would work best in the hydrogen-natural gas mix, controlling the combustion rate, holding the temperature steady, avoiding wear on the turbine’s components and limiting emissions.

“Hydrogen is a very reactive fuel, very fast-burning,” McManus. “Our objective is not to run at higher temperatures but to run at the same temperature at the combustion exit.”

The burn temperature can be controlled by adjusting the hydrogen-to-air ratio. But as more air is added, more nitrogen oxides are potentially formed, because air is three-quarters nitrogen. The nitrogen oxides create their own set of problems when released into the atmosphere, so generating more of them in the process of reducing carbon dioxide isn’t desirable. The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions while holding NOx emissions steady, McManus said.

GE turbines, he said, are adaptable to meet the challenges all these dueling goals present.

“Now we have turbines in the field that can run on some percentage of hydrogen but those percentages are down in the 10% to 20% range,” he said. “The good news is that GE’s gas turbines are made in kind of a modular fashion.”

They can be retrofitted more easily than some competitors’ machines, he said.

Beyond the turbine itself, McManus said, GE needs to adapt the supporting infrastructure to hydrogen.

“There will need to be some work done in terms of the handling, possibly the startup-shutdown processes, the general leak detection process,” he said. “All these things do exist for natural gas, but it’s likely we’ll have to come with new approaches.”

Burning hydrogen isn’t new to the industry. A 2005-2010 Department of Energy initiative boosted the field to the point that most manufacturers can add some hydrogen burning capacity to their products.

Dozens of GE turbines worldwide use a hydrogen-natural gas mix, and just last month, GE and Long Ridge Energy Terminal announced commissioning of an Ohio facility that can burn 15-20% hydrogen. It’s the first purpose-built hydrogen-burning plant in the nation, GE said, and will gradually build to 100% hydrogen combustion.

The drive now is better efficiency. Gas turbines top out at around 63% efficiency; the short-term goal with hydrogen is 65%, the long-term goal is 70%.

“Research and development projects like this are meant to explore new, clean methods of producing hydrogen and improving the efficiency of hydrogen-fueled turbines that will help generate electricity and reach the president’s goal of a zero-carbon American power sector by 2035,” the DOE Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management said via email.

As better turbines are developed, other DOE-backed projects will look at ways to generate hydrogen with low environmental impact (such as through carbon capture) and ways to transport and store hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be run through a specifically designed pipeline just as natural gas can — there are 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico Region serving the petroleum industry. But mixing hydrogen into natural gas pipelines is harder.

DOE’s HyBlend initiative is looking for ways to overcome the technical barriers for this.

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