Shale’s Latest Beneficiary? Hydrogen Fuel Cells

We’ve heard a lot about what the development of natural gas from shale is doing for the American economy: hundreds of thousands of jobs, lower prices for consumers, and a rebirth of domestic manufacturing.

But now experts believe that the abundant natural gas supplies in the United States will facilitate the creation of a technology that even Energy Secretary Steven Chu – winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1997 – had once believed was “unlikely” to be developed: hydrogen fuel cells.

How is that, though? The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 95 percent of hydrogen produced in the United States comes from natural gas. Just a few years ago – when the United States was considered to be on the cusp of a severe natural gas shortage – there was little reason to believe that hydrogen fuel cells would ever be economically viable. As late as 2009, Secretary Chu was arguing that the technology faced severe cost limitations, noting specifically the need to process hydrogen from natural gas.

But as they say: that was then, this is now.

Thanks to advances in (and the increased application of) proven technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, natural gas development in the United States has grown substantially in recent years to record highs. This increased supply has lowered the price of natural gas, which naturally benefits consumers as well as manufacturers who use gas as a major source of energy or primary feedstock.

Which is why the U.S. Department of Energy now believes fuel cells are worth a second look. As Energy Department spokesman Bill Gibbons said:

“The development of America’s tremendous shale gas resources is also helping to reduce the costs of producing hydrogen and operating hydrogen fuel cells…The cost of hydrogen production alone can be cut in half based on earlier projections.”

A representative from Honda North America – which will begin commercial production of fuel cell cars in just a few years – has cited Secretary Chu’s “evolution” on the issue, adding that the Secretary now “appreciates to a greater extent” the possibilities of widespread fuel cell adoption.

Just one more example of how natural gas development – particularly from shale – is benefiting the American economy through increased innovation and technological advancement.


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