Is Hydrogen the Future of Green Energy?

Our demand for energy is fast growing and countries are striving to meet their decarbonization challenge. Many renewable sources of energy are mature and commercially competitive, but one element is usually forgotten: Hydrogen.

1 December 2018, By Tabea Mündlein

Hydrogen gas is a versatile energy carrier that has numerous potential uses. We have seen in our previous article about Electric Vehicles how the clean energy market is growing at a rapid pace. However, it still poses important emission issues, for example, the manufacture and recycle of batteries which still include a high share of power input from lignite, coal, and natural gas power plants. Therefore, to obtain truly green energy sources we need more efficient production process. Here hydrogen comes into play.

Recently, we have been witnessing a boom of start-ups working in the field of hydrogen to make this technology competitive as it could have several advantages over other energy carriers, such as batteries.

So, given that the most basic form of this technology has been around for nearly 150 years, why has its time suddenly come?

Why Hydrogen?

Hydrogen has always been regarded as the fuel of the future. In 1874, Jules Verne wrote “Water is the coal of the future”, referring to the English physicist Sir William Robert Grove who discovered in 1839 that electricity can be produced from the electrochemical treatment of hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen has several advantages over other energy carriers. The main three are:

  • Hydrogen is one of the most plentiful gas in the universe with the sun and stars comprising of hydrogen and helium gas.
  • The unique properties of hydrogen enable it to become highly efficient, thanks to the possibility of producing zero to near zero emissions
  • Hydrogen can not only be used in fuel cells to generate electricity, but it can also be used to fuel internal combustion engines to replace petrochemicals such as diesel

Governments are recognizing the potential of hydrogen and are beginning to set policy goals for its usage, particularly for tackling climate change. In fact, to achieve the goal of reducing total CO2 emissions by at least 40% within 2030, Europe needs to drastically decrease emissions from the transport sector.

How Can Hydrogen Revolutionize the Future of Sustainable Transport?

The transport industry is one of the largest sources of world’s total greenhouse emissions. In 2016, emissions had grown by 51% since 1990. As this number continues to increase, governments across the globe are focusing their efforts on a more sustainable transportation future by phasing out diesel vehicles from our streets.

Current options for low emission vehicles are focused on two primary opportunities: Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV). However, compared with batteries, hydrogen can release more energy per unit of mass. This means that in contrast to electric battery-powered cars, it can allow passenger vehicles to cover longer distances without refueling, offering a quicker recharging time as well.

2018 is representing a turning point for hydrogen, but the proportion of vehicles running on hydrogen is still quite low. According to our internal CLR data, Japan, Canada, Germany and California are the most proactive countries in the field of hydrogen propulsion. For instance, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is strongly promoting the construction of the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R), which is said to become the world’s largest hydrogen-based energy system.

However, the lack of infrastructure for refuelling is causing a slow deployment level. The current status of the H-refueling stations can be checked under:

Hydrogen Still Has Many Challenges Ahead

Hydrogen gas is an energy carrier and it is not freely available in the atmosphere. That´s why it requires an energy input and a series of technologies to produce, store and then use it. Currently, most of it is obtained from natural gas via steam reforming. This process is not emission free as it produces carbon dioxide from the carbon contained in the natural gas. Plus, its production requires considerable quantities of heat generated by burning gas. There are significant energy losses in the different processes, and, electrolysis and steam reforming, the two main processes of hydrogen extraction, are still extremely expensive. This is the real reason the gas is not heavily used across the world. Plus, clean power often goes to waste because of inflexibility and insufficient storage options.

However, recently, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) have advanced the field of hydrogen power by creating a hybrid device that uses solar energy to produce hydrogen and electricity in a cost-effective manner. However, to effectively use hydrogen as a zero emissions fuel still possesses three main challenges:

  • The cost of production: hydrogen extraction is expensive compared to gasoline.
  • The storage issue: hydrogen is difficult to store because it has a very low volumetric energy density
  • The mainstream energy-intensive production process: hydrogen still requires fossil fuel inputs that leave behind a waste stream of carbon dioxide

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, pointed out that “Hydrogen makes no sense as hydrogen fuel may be clean in itself, but unless an efficient method to produce hydrogen can be found, it doesn’t make any sense”. The use of hydrogen can therefore be defined as renewable only if produced using wind or solar energy, however, these processes are still not efficient enough.

The Potential is Enormous

Since water is the only bountiful source of hydrogen on the planet and sunlight is the most abundant energy source, global experts argue that solar-driven water splitting may become the technology of choice in the second half of this century. The Hydrogen Council – a consortium of 18 companies in the automotive, oil and gas, industrial gas, and equipment industries – estimates that hydrogen could contribute to around one-fifth of the total abatement of CO2 emissions needed by 2050. Therefore, in the economy of the future, hydrogen could really represent one of the major enablers of a full transition to a renewable-energy system.

The know-how is already here, and, across the world, researchers are trying to improve the efficiency and costs of producing, storing, transporting and using hydrogen in applications as diverse as heat and transport. Mass-produced hydrogen cars are already on the market and are in use with local governments and car rental firms. Above all there is Japan, that has also announced its intention to become the world’s first “Hydrogen society”, aiming to have 35 hydrogen fuel stations in operation by 2020.

Will hydrogen prove to be an indispensable tool in enabling the dream of having a truly green form of energy that powers our homes, phones, and cars? For sure, the appetite to explore hydrogen as an energy vector is growing at pace and the future imagined by Jules Verne is closer than ever.