Connecting Unrelated Industries Strengthens All Sectors

By Benjamin Dierker, executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, the only nationwide public policy think tank dedicated to infrastructure in the United States.

There are multiple sectors of critical infrastructure, which are often siloed and viewed as individual elements or discussed only one at a time. To move toward a more resilient framework, policymakers and industry professionals should be looking for cross-sector collaborations and partnerships that will strengthen aspects of their own work. This type of cooperation not only unleashes the potential to learn from others and see one’s own sector differently, but it can open previously unseen opportunities.

In a similar sense to which policymakers seek to avoid cascading effects, where a single point of failure in one sector leads to negative consequences in multiple other dependent sectors, we can identify and leverage a positive variant. Acting almost as an inverse of the cascading effect, leveraging a sector and its processes to bolster others can push benefits not to dependent sectors but to even seemingly unrelated ones. However, this requires collaboration. Unlike a cascade, which will occur by its own inertia, the positive case offers resources which other parties must integrate to realize their benefits.
With the inverted model in mind, it calls for the use of something previously considered harmful. Carbon is a disfavored byproduct of industrial processes, particularly in the form of carbon dioxide, making it a negative production externality. This can be directly converted into a positive production externality when the carbon is easy, safe, and low-cost to capture, collect, handle, transport, and employ for other uses.

Carbon, then, serves as a common link where multiple relevant sectors align. Not only do many critical infrastructure components rely on carbon-intensive power and energy security, but many are dependent on strong and resilient construction materials like concrete and asphalt.

In particular, there is a natural link between the energy and transportation sectors that not only leverages existing critical infrastructure but produces inherent resilience outcomes for both sides and third parties. More than this, it has potential for environmental benefits and economic bolstering. It is the interplay between natural gas, pipelines, and roadways. It is not difficult to see why these are not naturally associated sectors: what do natural gas and roads have to do with one another? But the pairing brings out something fascinating.

Through the decarbonizing of natural gas, energy users can produce their own hydrogen on site with a solid carbon byproduct rather than carbon dioxide emissions. This distributed hydrogen production method utilizes existing natural gas pipelines and is less capital intensive than more popular forms of centralized hydrogen production. This model also reduces strain and stress on other sectors, offering another indirect benefit.

The process begins with natural gas. This abundant and low-cost energy resource already provides the lion’s share of electricity and industrial process heat in the United States and in many places around the world. The versatility and usefulness of natural gas makes it an ideal energy resource for providing robust power and energy security. Millions of miles of pipelines direct this resource into facilities around the country.

Policymakers and environmentally-focused industry leaders recognize that burning natural gas leads to carbon dioxide emissions. The long-term resilience of the energy sector is at least partially dependent on environmental and climatic factors. Those seeking to decarbonize their power load have searched for alternatives ranging from carbon capture technology to carbon offsets to alternative power sources and electrification. These all range in efficiency and efficacy, but also require different levels of capital intensity and investment requirements.

Given the extensive network of critical infrastructure already in place – namely pipelines – the most efficient solution would be to leverage it. By extracting the most value from existing pipelines, industry leaders and policymakers can avoid unnecessary and costly build outs of new infrastructure. The innovative multi-sector process to achieve sustainable long-term critical infrastructure protection and resilience keeps natural gas as central to its equation, but pairs it with a move toward hydrogen.

Innovators have honed a process for decarbonizing natural gas to produce hydrogen that skips the byproduct of carbon dioxide emissions. It is important that that process not fall into the trap of requiring new infrastructure, which would ultimately lead to delays, grid strain, and high expenses. Leveraging the pipeline network means utilizing a distributed production method rather than centralized. While extensive benefits can be derived from a centralized green hydrogen production process that employs electrolysis and similarly avoids carbon dioxide emissions, this requires new facilities, adds significant new demand for electricity from clean sources, which in turn requires new renewable generation deployments and accompanying transmission infrastructure. Once all this is in place, the hydrogen must be compressed and stored or transported through trucks or pipelines yet to be constructed or retrofitted.
Every step in that process depends on decades-long permitting and regulatory compliance, construction timelines, and interdependencies of their own. By contrast, the distributed model creates hydrogen at the end stage of the existing infrastructure and avoids these build outs, regulatory compliance, and associated costs and delays. These all serve as indirect benefits to the power sector – helping reduce strain to keep it resilient – and the pipeline sector – doubling down on the criticality of natural gas pipelines to ensure they are protected and operational to serve existing and new clients.

The process takes shape when the natural gas enters the facility through existing distribution lines. Once behind the meter, the gas moves through equipment that uses thermal methane pyrolysis. This is a superheating method that decomposes the methane molecule into its constituent parts of hydrogen and carbon. An initial heat reaction can be generated by burning the natural gas, then sustained by its own clean-burning hydrogen. The output is clean hydrogen gas and solid carbon powder with no other emissions.

Fully decarbonizing natural gas in a pre-combustion carbon capture technique means that only clean hydrogen (or the appropriate blend) is sent into the facility’s combustion chambers, be they boilers, forges, or other generators. This means no need for investment in scrubbers or an expensive carbon capture apparatus. It also means capturing all of the carbon, making it highly efficient and effective, whereas other carbon capture processes use may more energy and capture less carbon, which is usually in the form of carbon dioxide and requires compression, storage, and transportation solutions of its own.

The hydrogen produced does not require storage tanks, because it is generated on site and on demand. The clean potential hydrogen can be stored in the form of natural gas and decarbonized at point of use. This once more leverages existing facilities.

The magic of the model comes from the carbon byproduct. As a solid powder, it is not lost to the atmosphere or diffuse and difficult to capture and store. The powder can be collected, safely handled, and sequestered or stored easily.

That ease of use also gives this form of carbon a natural advantage in use as a valuable input in other sectors. Policymakers often require or encourage carbon to be buried underground to remove it from the carbon balance sheet that ultimately influences the climate. But utilizing the carbon as a product can help improve the resilience of other sectors.

Sequestering carbon into our built environment completes the loop on a new potential circular economy related to carbon. Carbon black can be incorporated into asphalt and used to patch, repair, and resurface potholes and whole roadways and other surface applications.

Identifying partnerships where power generators and roadbuilders are in close communication may be few and far between. But this model demonstrates how the power sector can shed its emissions to reduce its carbon intensity and improve its own resilience, while providing a building material and strengthening agent to construction sectors and road builders.

Through this cross-sectoral model, economy-wide resilience can be strengthened by removing carbon. It reduces strain on the power grid while not threatening and even boosting energy security by continued use of natural gas. This decarbonized natural gas is fully carbon neutral.

Tying in still other sectors can turn this process fully carbon negative. For instance, by incorporating waste facilities and the agricultural sector, industry leaders can capture methane from landfills, wastewater sites, farms, and more and process these into renewable natural gas – a form of carbon neutral biogas with the same chemical signature as geologic natural gas for use in the same pipeline networks. With this type of carbon-neutral and renewable form of natural gas, the use of thermal methane pyrolysis removes carbon that was previously in the atmosphere and turns the entire balance sheet negative.

Further collaborations and partnerships can be imagined that pair into this type of model, because other sources of methane can be identified, other power sectors or gas users may enter the market, and innovators can generate new applications for carbon black.

This is not to say it is the only model capable of such dynamic cross-sector collaboration. By contrast, it serves to underscore just such potential. If natural gas and potholes can find common cause, surely other sectors and their various solution challenges can find innovative partnerships and collaborations.
The process discussed here demonstrates an inverted cascading model, where one sector turns a problem into a resource that another sector can pick up and employ. By starting with one process and its byproduct, policymakers can follow it through to ensure laws and regulations not only allow but encourage these types of partnerships. Industry leaders can explore their own assets and liabilities, listen for the challenges and solutions in other sectors, and move toward piloting new processes.
Carbon is a national and global focal point. By decarbonizing natural gas, innovators can use technology to take the main negative out of a critical energy resource and turn it into a positive for other industries. But the process for doing so is where most of the benefits accrue. By leveraging existing critical infrastructure, a distributed hydrogen production model prevents the unnecessary building of new or specialized hydrogen pipelines to move the gas from centralized production sites. It also avoids adding strain to power demand or adding to the waitlist for new transmission infrastructure needed to connect wind and solar projects to the grid.

This enables a robust power sector, reduced emissions, leveraging critical pipeline sectors, and improving the resilience of roadways. Policymakers and industry actors must look for these types of innovative collaborations to move toward circular economies and resilience for the demand of the future.