Believing in Hydrogen

Something that will take thirty to forty years to turn from being ambitious and full of intent into realization is hard to relate too. Hydrogen is one of those promised solutions that can potentially allow us to achieve our “net-zero” carbon ambitions that have been “set in stone” (The Paris Agreement) dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, signed in 2016 that we need to achieve by 2050.

Hydrogen is becoming a central pillar for many countries across the world to help achieve their targets to this net-zero by mid-century. Hydrogen holds, it seems, such a promise, but it is nearly all to do. There is so much to validate, prove, and certainly scale to make a real impact on changing the sources of our energy.

The more you investigate Hydrogen, the more you realize the complexity of making it a viable energy source of sufficient scale. One that will really deliver the suggested results that Hydrogen could meet 24% of the worlds final energy demands by 2050. Today it provides around 1%. To change our energy systems reliant on Oil, Gas, Coal, and make these renewables based on Solar, Wind, and Water separation is at a level of magnitude is hard to imagine.

Hydrogen is familiar, but it has failed to live up to its reputation as it has been based on fossil fuels, that now needs to change.

Hydrogen has been around for years. We use Hydrogen today for oil-refining and chemical production. The problem is this hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels that have significant CO2 emissions. We have had hydrogen piped into our homes, offered as the alternative aviation solution, that lives always in association with the Hindenburg disaster.

So what makes it different this time?

We are in search of a clean ‘green’ energy source that can complement our other renewable energy sources of wind and solar. We need a dispatchable carbon-neutral source of power that can bridge, supplement and compliment when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow. This is separating water into Hydrogen that gives us the potential solution.

In everything, you read Hydrogen can be the replacement “kid” for our energy supplies; in our building and heating solutions, for solving hard-to-abate industry sectors like iron and steel, chemicals and base agriculture. Hydrogen can be a fuel of the future for transport including cars, trucks, shipping and aviation.

Hydrogen seems to be the sectoral gift from heaven, water is abundant, all we need to do is separate the hydrogen out from the oxygen and turn it into reusable energy. Easy right?

Hydrogen is our decarbonization solution

You can get this sense of a Hydrogen as the best panacea for Decarbonizing the World. From what I have read and it has been a lot recently, I want to believe it, yet everything is currently couched in “It is technically feasible” or “ambitious, but achievable.” We have a considerable range of technically feasible or viable solutions. However, all the different “Hydrogen roadmaps” keep making you feel you are still only closer to the starting off point and not to the end result, we require in this next thirty to forty years if we can decarbonize our planet as we need too.

The sheer number of projects on a feasibility path to validate, prove, pilot, and understand the issues and barriers around Hydrogen are mind-boggling to follow. There are so many that look to be exciting, challenging and worthwhile

Today there are a number of countries all fleshing out their Hydrogen Strategies or pathways. Australia, Germany, the UK, the EU, the US, China all are developing their thinking and building the wider ecosystem of stakeholders to give these intentions with Hydrogen a greater momentum.

Reality often tells a different story

We need an awful lot of Hydrogen to replace our fossil fuels, to power our electricity grids, to decarbonize all the current sectors of our economy that have built their reliance on fossil fuels and have given ongoing focus to driving efficiencies and costs of fuel inputs into known models that work.

Hydrogen is yet to be proven, certainly, at scale as well as a range of applications or processes. Presently Hydrogen is far more expensive as a source of energy than existing energy sources. We would need to radically build a supporting Hydrogen infrastructure as it is to a large degree highly disruptive to the existing infrastructure, supply chains, and market acceptance. We need to resolve this to make it commercially viable.

Getting at simply releasing hydrogen from anything is an ongoing challenge. It needs different technology applications at scale. It does not matter if it is from fossil-based related sources (gas, coal, or oil)  that are the past routes of generation, or the one everyone is in hot pursuit of for the future, from water separation (H2O) to make clean energy of H2.

Turning Water into Wine, well OK Hydrogen

Water is the environmentally friendly Hydrogen that does not “release” carbon dioxide as you break down water (h2O) into the separate components of oxygen and hydrogen. This is a holy grail for our carbon-free world; the use of our abundant supply of water to separate out the hydrogen we need to drive our energy systems of the future. It is going to take an enormous amount of Electrolyzers to be operating and these will need to be way beyond their current size and capacity.

The exciting prospects of combining wind and solar power with water and hydrogen does, in theory, offer the solutions we need to get our world onto a net-zero carbon pathway. The reality is it is a thirty to forty-year slog, one that is hard and can only be achieved in a steady, well-thought-through way and across so much “unknown terrain” with difficulty and determination. It is a long exhausting journey to make Hydrogen the new energy source, it needs an alignment of so much.

Hydrogen needs Global Commitment

Today Hydrogen, the green gas is on shaky ground. The wisdom of many is it provides the only feasible answer to achieve our net-zero carbon emission world.

To achieve the vision of powering our world with green energy needs “all the stars to align”.

We need Governments to clear the pathway to this potential. That means tearing down many of today’s ‘accepted ‘ market conditions, to allow Hydrogen to effectively compete. They need to find ways to reduce subsidies on present fossil fuels or their infrastructure and manage the transition from “dirty, carbon-emitting fuels into clean, renewable-based fuels” and that is a difficult path to navigate through in energy security, cost, constantly changing and increasing energy demand and making sure those future decisions offer increased sustainability and ‘returns’ that constantly deliver growth, new job opportunities to replace those that will be displaced by this energy shift.

Research, development, technology, and innovation are all needed

We need research and development across the whole spectrum of solutions that cover all the sectoral pathways. Electrolysis, storage & fuel cell development are the unlocking keys. Once we get at the hydrogen separation, we can pursue all the cross-cutting technologies for improving fuel cells, improve clean-burning energy and develop storage solutions, build-out infrastructures, make more synthetic fuels and use cleaner hydrogen inputs into the industrial processes.

The real breakthrough in R&D is to find more radical technology design to enable the cost of scale to kick in. The more we create the demand the scaling efficiencies can drop, the pricing of solutions drop. They get closer and closer to the alternative energy and process alternatives. The path of scale is similarly predicted to be like solar, and wind costs have dramatically dropped over the years.

As Hydrogen becomes increasingly attractive to use, the application solutions begin to become validated as switching (costs) get re-evaluated as competitive and desirable. Desirable based on green energy solutions and not polluting ones based on fossil fuels. Zero carbon emissions are the endpoint for all and proven Hydrogen solutions that do scale become highly attractive.

How to get to this projected land of Zero-carbon emissions?

There is a long hard path to travel. Hydrogen needs to prove it can be scaled up, it needs to be attractive in cost to convinced present users, reliant on other fuels to invest in the switch. We need to balance Green Hydrogen through harnessing Renewables (wind, solar) to be able to live alongside Blue Hydrogen, which uses steam reformed natural gas with CCUS solutions. We need real solutions for this Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage as well that can handle the volume and difficulties associated with this. I will be looking more in CCUS in the coming weeks.

Green and Blue Hydrogen have to find the complementary pathway over the next fifty or so years They need to combine to reduce grey hydrogen, currently the one used in those hard-to-abate sectors (iron, steel, chemicals) and replace its principal sources of fuel coal and oil and stop the Carbon dioxide emissions, by at least making it Blue with Carbon Capture.

I want to believe we can get Hydrogen really going in its momentum

I think I am at that point of the more I research Hydrogen and try to understand, the harder it is in knowing the true and feasible pathway and what it is really is. Hydrogen promises so much, will it be realized?

The amount of hype mixed with valuable insights is like separating hydrogen from oxygen, we must do it. All of the Hydrogen potentials seem feasible, but our capacity to scale these out in a logical clear way and make the necessary investments is so mired by our inability to offer a clear pathway for Hydrogen; this needs to be put into place and clarified.

We are at the beginning of a decade for Hydrogen, we need to traverse the Hydrogen landscape. We have on the horizon a fixed set of goals to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, but all those hills that we will need to navigate are hard when you are still caught in the valley.

Author: @paul4innovating

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

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