Virent, Shell partner to make hydrogen from glycerin

By Nicholas Zeman
In a five-year joint development project, Virent Energy Systems Inc. and Shell Hydrogen LLC are working toward commercializing Virent's BioForming technology to produce hydrogen from several biomass-derived feedstocks -including glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel refining.

Because the vast majority of hydrogen is currently produced from coal and other fossil fuel sources, Duncan Macleod, vice president of Shell Hydrogen, said that one of the main challenges to "introducing the benefits of a hydrogen-based economy is reducing the [carbon dioxide] emissions associated with hydrogen production." Realizing this goal will involve utilizing glycerin and other sugar-based feedstocks to produce the high-energy gas.

At Virent's facilities in Madison, Wis., and Shell's Westhollow Technology Center in Houston, the two companies' scientists will work together to research and experiment with biomass-derived hydrogen systems designed for fueling station applications. If development goes according to plan, Shell anticipates the use of this technology at one of its hydrogen fueling stations within several years. "This collaboration will speed the development and deployment of our technology not only in hydrogen fuel station applications but in the broader hydrogen industrial market, as well," said Eric Apfelbach, Virent president and CEO.

According to Shell, the world market for distributed and centralized hydrogen is estimated at approximately 45 million tons per year. Aside from its use as an energy carrier in transportation applications, hydrogen is used to make ammonia fertilizer and to upgrade lower quality fractions in the refining of gasoline and diesel fuels. Other manufacturing applications for hydrogen include glass, vitamins, personal care products, lubricants, refined metals and processed foods.