Peoples Natural Gas, H Quest, and University of Pittsburgh Team to Produce and Test Hydrogen Energy from Natural Gas

11 June 2024

An innovative demonstration project that will attempt to create zero-emission hydrogen energy at the scale needed for widespread adoption is now underway in Western Pennsylvania. Peoples, an Essential Utilities company, leads the pilot with support from Pittsburgh-based energy technology start-up company H Quest and the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. The testing is one of multiple ways Essential and Peoples are working to be leaders in hydrogen.

First, Peoples installed one of H Quest’s proprietary microwave pyrolysis units at its training center in McKeesport to transform natural gas into pure hydrogen (H2) without CO2 emissions. The process creates what is often referred to as turquoise hydrogen. Roughly the size of a shipping container, technology within the unit heats the natural gas as it flows through the system in an oxygen-free setting. This almost instantaneously “cracks” the gas into two distinct byproducts: clean H2, and a solid carbon material called carbon black: an industrial product used as a crucial component in batteries, paints, pigments, rubber products, tires, and more. H Quest’s system will produce hydrogen directly from natural gas without CO2 emissions.

Peoples then blends the hydrogen with natural gas at various ratios to assess impacts on physical pipeline operations and various home appliances. The ongoing blending and testing at the Peoples Training Center in McKeesport occurs within a closed-loop system; H2 is not inserted into distribution lines that serve customers at this point.

“Our mission to provide safe, reliable, and affordable natural gas is based on a commitment to make lives better,” said Peoples President Michael Huwar. “That commitment means pursuing innovations that leverage our local abundance of natural gas while placing a focus on decarbonization. At the same time, we have a regulatory commitment to purchase gas at the lowest cost for our customers. Supporting technological advancements that allow hydrogen to be produced at a scale that makes H2 affordable is critically important.”

Peoples co-hosted two conferences bringing together regional and national leaders in hydrogen technology and policy, and began a research project with Pitt in 2022 to study the impacts of hydrogen on existing natural gas delivery systems. That work provides valuable benchmarks for this multi-phase pilot.

Turquoise hydrogen may solve multiple challenges that have kept hydrogen from large-scale adoption. By extracting the carbon from natural gas as a solid material, greenhouse gas emissions that are typically associated with conventional hydrogen production can be entirely prevented. These solid carbon products, such as carbon black and graphene, would be sold to offset the cost of hydrogen fuel. H Quest’s distributed modular package reduces the need for and costs of transportation and infrastructure upgrades required to deliver the fuel to the customer, and may in some cases even eliminate them altogether. This changes the financial model to make hydrogen energy competitive with standard natural gas and other alternatives.

“We appreciate the support and contributions from Peoples that allows us to pilot our system at a prospective customer’s facility,” said H Quest CEO and Founder George Skoptsov. “This pilot is instrumental in demonstrating that our microwave pyrolysis technology can help the natural gas industry to significantly reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions while creating valuable, in-demand products that change the calculus for hydrogen energy.”

In conjunction with the operational testing in McKeesport, Pitt’s material scientists will evaluate the influence of hydrogen blends on the integrity of Peoples’ commonly used pipeline material in a controlled environment. Pitt will test H2–natural gas blends ranging from 5 – 20% hydrogen to see how each interacts with different pipeline materials. The ultimate goal: providing low-cost energy that is just as safe and reliable as natural gas, but with reduced emissions.

“This is a special opportunity to conduct materials testing under the practical conditions provided by this H2 demonstration facility,” said Dr. Brian Gleeson, Professor and Chair of the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department at Pitt. “The results will guide materials selection for the safe and long-term delivery of H2–natural gas blends to Peoples’ customers in the future.”