"Blue hydrogen is crucial for climate change."

Published: 30 January 2024

Text: Anne-Marie Korseberg Stokke

Photo: Angelique Culvin-Riccot

Behind partially closed doors on the ground floor of Oslo Science Park, you'll find a maze of copper pipes, flasks, test tubes, nozzles, meters, and hoses. Here, researchers from the University of Oslo's Centre for Materials Science and Nanotechnology (SMN) work. Among other things, they are trying to find solutions to our need for sustainable energy.

The first office on the right-hand side belongs to Professor of Chemistry, Truls Norby. He has been researching high-temperature chemistry of solid materials for 40 years and leads one of the largest research groups at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oslo. His expertise is evident, and he is also a skilled teacher:

"So, what is hydrogen used for?"

"Ehm, as a fuel for cars?"

The interviewer's lack of chemistry knowledge is quickly revealed by the professor, but it doesn't dampen his enthusiasm.

"In my opinion, hydrogen is a crucial part of our way through the climate crisis. We can build wind turbines and solar cells, but because it isn't always wind or sunshine here in Norway, we need to store and transport energy during periods when renewable sources produce more than we can use. We can solve this by using cheap and readily available natural gas to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen allows us to store large amounts of energy and use it in fuel cells to generate electricity when needed."

FACT: Energy source vs energy carrier

We obtain energy from sources such as the sun, wind, water, and fossil fuels. However, an energy carrier is used to retain energy, for storage, transport, and later use. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source.

The Centre for Materials Science and Nanotechnology (SMN) is located in Oslo Science Park and comprises UiO’s focus on renewable energy, materials science, and nanotechnology. The Centre is an interdisciplinary collaboration between five research groups in physics and chemistry, and spearheads the MN Faculty's efforts for sustainable energy solutions.

"But how do you produce hydrogen?"

"To produce hydrogen with green energy, you need to go back to electrolysis, as Norsk Hydro did 100 years ago. Initially, and mostly still, alkaline electrolysis is used—a solution with an alkaline electrolyte. However, it is better to use a solid electrolyte in the electrolyzer and the fuel cells. For example, this is what is used in hydrogen cars today. The technology is called PEM, and it is based on using a polymer membrane that conducts ions, in this case, protons," explains Norby.

"Another option is the so-called SOFC (Solid-oxide fuel cell), where a solid oxide electrolyte is used as an ion conductor at very high temperatures - about 800 degrees. With them, one can electrolyze water vapour more efficiently and create efficient fuel cells that can handle many types of fuel. The downside is that the temperature is so high that the materials degrade rather quickly.

Blue hydrogen as an energy carrier

This is where we get into Norby's expertise: Proton-conducting ceramic materials. It is a middle ground between PEM and SOFC.

"We have developed a material that is ceramic but conducts protons just like the polymers do. This can be done at lower temperatures than with SOFC. It can be used in electrolyzers and fuel cells. But the most interesting thing right now is to use it in reactors where we can pump out hydrogen from a mixture of natural gas and water vapour in one step. What remains is a stream of CO2 that can be stored under the seabed on the continental shelf. Natural gas turns into hydrogen with carbon capture, in one step. It is the world's most efficient process for making blue hydrogen!

"But when the hydrogen is produced, what about storage and transport?"

"It's possible to store hydrogen, but it takes up a lot of space and costs a bit of energy. Ammonia can be an alternative for that," says Norby.


"Almost all hydrogen in the world goes to the production of ammonia for use in artificial fertilizer. But you can also make blue ammonia directly, which is easier to transport than hydrogen and therefore is a marketable energy carrier."

FACT: Gray, green, blue and turquoise hydrogen

Four different colours are used to categorize hydrogen, based on its origin:

1. Gray Hydrogen: Fossil fuels are used in hydrogen production, and all CO2 is emitted.

2. Green Hydrogen: Hydrogen production using water and electricity (electrolysis) from renewable sources.

3. Blue Hydrogen: Natural gas and steam are used in a chemical process that separates hydrogen and CO2 for storage.

4. Turquoise Hydrogen: The same process as blue, but carbon is separated and stored as a solid (carbon black) instead of as CO2 gas.

Source: https://www.sintef.no/siste-nytt/2020/hva-er-egentlig-gra-gronn-bla-og-turkis-hydrogen/

Professor Truls Norby has been researching high-temperature chemistry of solid materials for 40 years and leads one of the largest research groups at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oslo (UiO).

CoorsTek: Commercialisation of research

The research on proton conductors for the production of blue hydrogen has led to the establishment of the company CoorsTek Membrane Sciences AS, formerly Protia AS, which Norby helped start in 2007. It is based in Forskningsparken and currently employs 25 people. Students at CoorsTek conduct experiments in the SMN lab, and Norby still sits on the board, although he is not an owner.

"For CoorsTek, the focus is on making these membranes and all electrochemistry work efficiently, durably, and at a low cost. This is a significant outcome of their research at SMN and UiO."

According to Norby, they are close to a commercial breakthrough and plan to build a factory to demonstrate and scale up the production of the membranes.

"This new process has generated great optimism, and many major energy companies want to start using the technology on a large scale. However, substantial investments of around 100 million NOK are needed, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future", Norby concludes.