In the current energy transition landscape, hydrogen production is emerging as a key pillar in the search for cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. Two of the main approaches for obtaining hydrogen are electrochemical and thermal production. Both processes have their particularities and specific applications that are important to understand in depth.

Electrochemical Hydrogen Production:

The electrochemical pathway is a process in which electricity is used to break down a water source or a hydrogen-containing compound into its basic components, hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). Two of the most common methods are water electrolysis and fuel cells.

Water Electrolysis:

One of the best known and most widely used processes in the production of hydrogen by electrochemical means is the electrolysis of water. This process involves passing an electric current through a solution of water or water vapor, resulting in the separation of water into hydrogen at the cathode and oxygen at the anode.

This process is efficient and produces pure hydrogen, making it suitable for applications where high-purity hydrogen is required, such as the chemical or semiconductor industries. In addition, water electrolysis can be powered by electricity generated from renewable sources, making it a sustainable way to produce hydrogen, known as "green hydrogen".

Fuel Cells:

One important method of producing electricity from hydrogen electrochemically involves fuel cells. In this case, fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water and heat as by-products. Fuel cells are used in power generation applications and hydrogen vehicles.

This process is highly efficient and produces no carbon emissions when using hydrogen produced from clean sources. Fuel cells are particularly suitable for mobility applications, as they offer a fast and efficient way to convert hydrogen into electricity to power fuel cell electric vehicles.

Thermal Hydrogen Production:

In contrast, thermal hydrogen production involves the use of heat instead of electricity. A common method is steam reforming, in which a hydrocarbon, such as natural gas, is combined with water vapor at high temperature in the presence of a catalyst to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO).

The carbon monoxide can then be removed to obtain pure hydrogen. This method is widely used in industry for large-scale hydrogen production.

Another thermal method is pyrolysis, which decomposes organic compounds at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to obtain hydrogen and other gaseous products. Although less common than steam reforming, pyrolysis has applications in the production of hydrogen from organic waste and biomass.

Complementarity of the technologies:

The choice between electrochemical and thermal hydrogen production depends on several factors, such as resource availability, energy efficiency and environmental impact. Currently, there is a focus on the complementarity of these technologies rather than direct competition.

Electrochemical hydrogen production, such as water electrolysis, is used in applications where high-purity hydrogen is required and electricity generated from renewable sources is available. This is essential for the production of "green hydrogen," which is essential for reducing carbon emissions in industries such as chemicals and transportation.

On the other hand, thermal hydrogen production, such as steam reforming, is suitable for large-scale applications and is used in industries where hydrogen is needed as a feedstock, such as the chemical industry and petroleum refining.

Research at CIC energiGUNE:

In this context of complementary technologies, research and development centers play a crucial role in the search for sustainable energy solutions. CIC energiGUNE is an outstanding example, dedicated to researching and developing new technologies both electrochemically and thermally.

In short, the difference between electrochemical and thermal hydrogen production lies in the fundamental processes involved, either electricity or heat. Both approaches have their specific advantages and applications, and their complementarity is essential to address the challenges of the energy transition.

At CIC energiGUNE we continue to research and develop both technologies with the aim of contributing to the progress towards a more sustainable and cleaner energy system; a commitment to research and innovation that is fundamental to achieve a greener and more efficient energy future.

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