Hydrogen: its future promise to decarbonize the world

In our need to have in place a low-carbon or zero-carbon world, Hydrogen supply seems to be an essential part of that.

The ‘promise’ of Green Hydrogen produced with renewable electricity offers the growth potential that may be similar to solar or wind if we provide sustained investment and technology focus.

Hydrogen deserves the same levels of support that went into solar energy over the past twenty years to realize its potential. Hydrogen is an extremely efficient form of energy that burns the cleanest of all fuels, emitting only water vapor; Hydrogen is one of the leading green energy sources.

It seems clear that green Hydrogen from renewable power is technically viable today; it is the ability to prove it can be safely scaled and commercialized as the challenge at hand. The whole concept of decarbonization through Hydrogen is not for today; it is in the future. It remains inefficient and expensive today and offers at present very low end-to-end efficiencies.

We are facing changing and more volatile times in this energy transition. The established providers of fossil fuel are determined to hang on in, and the renewables have to find ways to become competitive and prove they are real, sustaining alternatives to generate electricity for our future energy needs. Regretfully politicians are getting caught in self-interest and not our future needs for a sustainable planet for humans as we have known to date.

Today natural gas prices in the US are heading lower. The sudden drop in lowering crude oil prices, as a direct response triggered by a current ‘oil war’ between significant oil producers, we can get quickly become distracted from the energy transition we need.

We need to keep our eyes firmly on the medium to long-term goals that many of today’s challenges of Energy Transition requires, and this still needs hard serious RD&D work to transform the energy system.

Hydrogen is not a panacea, but it is potentially a significant part of the energy transition

The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) suggests Hydrogen should not be considered as a panacea recently as it has a long way to go to become a “solution at scale” or the energy source of the future. There are considerable obstacles to be resolved in all areas of the Hydrogen supply chain.

 Despite this current host of ‘reservations,’ there is some very ‘bullish’ interest in solving the Hydrogen problems. We have Japan, Australia, China, the USA; all are theoretically planing to have millions of hydrogen vehicles on the road, but will the electric car, as the alternative, be the market preference solution? Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda are leading the chase on developing a competitive hydrogen car.

Unfortunately, overwhelming practical problems remain for Hydrogen to catch up.

There are real significant roadblocks in the quest towards a hydrogen economy, not just for cars alone. There is a whole slew of problems in its manufacturing at scale, shipped, and storage.

The engineering obstacles include Hydrogen has a low density, so a hydrogen fuel tank has to be three times larger than a gasoline tank for a car. Presently the fuel cell engine costs ten times as much as a conventional engine, a price just too steep for only reliance on scaling efficiencies; it needs innovative engineering and technology breakthrough solutions.

Then the infrastructure would be a costly investment. Hydrogen fuel stations would have to replace, or in the very least supplement, the current gas stations. Long distant trucks might be a more competitive proposition.

We have the European Union wants to use Hydrogen for heating, transporting, and industrial applications to meet its 2050 net-zero emissions. Large energy players like Shell, BP, Siemens, and many others are all sensing the commercialization potential for Hydrogen.

The hydrogen market is in its nascent period of supplying Hydrogen as a green alternative. Still, with so many international stakeholders, this will drive technology solutions and deployments up from numerous pilots or early investments into a significant scaling over the 2020 to 2030 period.

Presently Hydrogen is used in the industrial process, mostly oil-refining and ammonia production, and that relies upon coal or the lignite gasification process or through the steam methane reformation (SMR) principles.

The present carbon-intensive production methods need changing.

We have different designated types of Hydrogen production:

  • ‘brown hydrogen’ coming from coal and lignite and its gasification,
  • then we have ‘grey hydrogen’ produced using the steam methane reformation process (SMR).
  • If we are using fossil-based fuels (coal, gas) but combined with carbon, capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) techniques, then this is called “blue” Hydrogen.  
  • To add a further twist, if this carbon capture is fully utilized in the process, it can be regarded as ‘clean’ Hydrogen as it is not emitting any residue carbon into the atmosphere,
  • Then we have ‘green Hydrogen’ all generated through renewable sources of wind, solar, biomass, etc.

At present, 98% of the Hydrogen produced is the SMR process with the present argument, that ‘blue’ Hydrogen using CCUS is the energy transition solution as we move towards finding commercially viable solutions and resolve the scaling up and deployment of green Hydrogen. An energy source using renewable energy that will also use substantial storage.

So Hydrogen promises a versatile clean energy carrier with enormous potential to decarbonize economy activities worldwide. The chase for having green Hydrogen in an integrated power system is the chase that is presently on.

Green Hydrogen holds immense promise.

Green Hydrogen holds the promise of solving the present hard-to-abate (decarbonize) sectors of our present energy-intensive industries. These are ones like chemicals, petrochemicals, metal processing, glass manufacturing, and ammonia production along.

Hydrogen also can offer solutions with alternative fuels for trucks, aviation, shipping, and heating application. If it can be achieved, then Hydrogen will have unprecedented political and business momentum. It does enable deep decarbonization.

There is a host of challenges to overcome before we get carried away.

The theory and application for the use of clean, renewable Hydrogen would change the energy and feedstock reliance’s we have today

What becomes critical is the use of the Electrolyser as the method to separate hydrogen and water. This process of using electricity to split water (H2O) into its parts of Hydrogen and oxygen goes through a reaction in this unit called an electrolyzer that splits the molecules into their constituent atoms.  Hydrogen produced from electrolysis is high purity of 99.999%, whereas, from fossil fuels from SMR, it has levels of impurities and requires further treatment before its use.

 To make clean or green Hydrogen, you have to ensure the electricity is from renewables (solar, wind, hydro, or even the looping back of the Hydrogen itself as final electricity.

Hydrogen can significantly manage the transition of changing the electricity sector. As we achieve more energy from renewables, there is a growing concern that the higher portion gives us the issue of variable renewable electricity (VRE). When the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine, we need alternatives. Today that comes from carbon-related sources, but this energy source of Hydrogen can offer the “gap” to optimize the renewables energy, without falling back on fossil fuels.

Today the hydrogen narrative is shifting from one of technology development but to market activation and scaling up. As we scale and mobilize investments in production, storage and transport begin to fall dramatically to become a highly competitive alternative to existing fuel solutions.

To sum up on an opening post of many on Hydrogen’s promise

So why Hydrogen? It is offering the potential to be a pivotal solution to solving many of the problems we will face in fully decarbonizing the energy system. It is not the current hydrogen solution delivered from hydrocarbons. Still, the answers that need to evolve and scale from green Hydrogen, 100% based on renewables, does seemingly be reliant on the electrolysis system for green production.

Hydrogen, to get to such a critically important position, needs coordinated financial and institutional support, similar to what solar or wind has been having for many years. Hydrogen needs considerable investment, piloting, experimenting, and scaling.

To make Hydrogen a viable alternative to other fuels, it has to show efficiencies throughout its Hydrogen value chain of production, storage, transport, and utilization in commercial attractiveness.

The Hydrogen Horizon is in sight; the solutions are feasible, emerging and available to extend out, now is the time of galvanizing solutions for scale and broader adoption, to provide the market attractiveness through investment and innovation.

In reality, it might not be until the next decade before we see the returns on this. Still, Hydrogen has its place in our energy mix due to its position as a leading green energy source, and we need to fully exploit its potential and resolve all the associated problems during this decade.

Author: @paul4innovating

A transition advocate for innovation, ecosystems, and digitalization for the energy and IIoT systems

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