Electrolysis is a promising option for carbon-free hydrogen production from renewable and nuclear resources. Electrolysis is the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This reaction takes place in a unit called an electrolyzer. Electrolyzers can range in size from small, appliance-size equipment that is well-suited for small-scale distributed hydrogen production to large-scale, central production facilities that could be tied directly to renewable or other non-greenhouse-gas-emitting forms of electricity production.

Schematic of a polymer electrolyte membrane electrolyzer

How Does it Work?

Like fuel cells, electrolyzers consist of an anode and a cathode separated by an electrolyte. Different electrolyzers function in different ways, mainly due to the different type of electrolyte material involved and the ionic species it conducts.

Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Electrolyzers

In a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolyzer, the electrolyte is a solid specialty plastic material.

  • Water reacts at the anode to form oxygen and positively charged hydrogen ions (protons).
  • The electrons flow through an external circuit and the hydrogen ions selectively move across the PEM to the cathode.
  • At the cathode, hydrogen ions combine with electrons from the external circuit to form hydrogen gas. Anode Reaction: 2H2O → O2 + 4H+ + 4e- Cathode Reaction: 4H+ + 4e- → 2H2

Alkaline Electrolyzers

Alkaline electrolyzers operate via transport of hydroxide ions (OH-) through the electrolyte from the cathode to the anode with hydrogen being generated on the cathode side. Electrolyzers using a liquid alkaline solution of sodium or potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte have been commercially available for many years. Newer approaches using solid alkaline exchange membranes (AEM) as the electrolyte are showing promise on the lab scale.

Solid Oxide Electrolyzers

Solid oxide electrolyzers, which use a solid ceramic material as the electrolyte that selectively conducts negatively charged oxygen ions (O2-) at elevated temperatures, generate hydrogen in a slightly different way.

  • Steam at the cathode combines with electrons from the external circuit to form hydrogen gas and negatively charged oxygen ions.
  • The oxygen ions pass through the solid ceramic membrane and react at the anode to form oxygen gas and generate electrons for the external circuit.

Solid oxide electrolyzers must operate at temperatures high enough for the solid oxide membranes to function properly (about 700°–800°C, compared to PEM electrolyzers, which operate at 70°–90°C, and commercial alkaline electrolyzers, which typically operate at less than 100°C). Advanced lab-scale solid oxide electrolyzers based on proton-conducting ceramic electrolytes are showing promise for lowering the operating temperature to 500°–600°C. The solid oxide electrolyzers can effectively use heat available at these elevated temperatures (from various sources, including nuclear energy) to decrease the amount of electrical energy needed to produce hydrogen from water.

Why Is This Pathway Being Considered?

Electrolysis is a leading hydrogen production pathway to achieve the Hydrogen Energy Earthshot goal of reducing the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per 1 kilogram in 1 decade ("1 1 1"). Hydrogen produced via electrolysis can result in zero greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the source of the electricity used. The source of the required electricity—including its cost and efficiency, as well as emissions resulting from electricity generation—must be considered when evaluating the benefits and economic viability of hydrogen production via electrolysis. In many regions of the country, today's power grid is not ideal for providing the electricity required for electrolysis because of the greenhouse gases released and the amount of fuel required due to the low efficiency of the electricity generation process. Hydrogen production via electrolysis is being pursued for renewable (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal) and nuclear energy options. These hydrogen production pathways result in virtually zero greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions; however, the production cost needs to be decreased significantly to be competitive with more mature carbon-based pathways such as natural gas reforming.

Potential for synergy with renewable energy power generation
Hydrogen production via electrolysis may offer opportunities for synergy with dynamic and intermittent power generation, which is characteristic of some renewable energy technologies. For example, though the cost of wind power has continued to drop, the inherent variability of wind is an impediment to the effective use of wind power. Hydrogen fuel and electric power generation could be integrated at a wind farm, allowing flexibility to shift production to best match resource availability with system operational needs and market factors. Also, in times of excess electricity production from wind farms, instead of curtailing the electricity as is commonly done, it is possible to use this excess electricity to produce hydrogen through electrolysis.

It is important to note...

  • Today's grid electricity is not the ideal source of electricity for electrolysis because most of the electricity is generated using technologies that result in greenhouse gas emissions and are energy intensive. Electricity generation using renewable or nuclear energy technologies, either separate from the grid, or as a growing portion of the grid mix, is a possible option to overcome these limitations for hydrogen production via electrolysis.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy and others continue efforts to bring down the cost of renewable-based electricity production and develop more efficient fossil-fuel-based electricity production with carbon capture, utilization, and storage. Wind-based electricity production, for example, is growing rapidly in the United States and globally.

Research Focuses On Overcoming Challenges

  • Meeting the Hydrogen Shot clean hydrogen cost target of $1/kg H2 by 2030 (and interim target of $2/kg H2 by 2025) through improved understanding of performance, cost, and durability trade-offs of electrolyzer systems under predicted future dynamic operating modes using CO2-free electricity.
  • Reducing the capital cost of the electrolyzer unit and the balance of the system.
  • Improving energy efficiency for converting electricity to hydrogen over a wide range of operating conditions.
  • Increasing understanding of electrolyzer cell and stack degradation processes and developing mitigation strategies to increase operational life.