The Potential for Hydrogen Fuel

Late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tours a hydrogen facility in Fukushima precinct.
Late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tours a hydrogen facility in Fukushima precinct. Photo credit to 内閣官房内閣広報室 on Wikimedia.

There’s not a day that goes by without the energy crisis hitting the headlines. Between inflation, war, and global supply issues, it doesn’t seem like there’s an end in sight to the energy shortage. If we add that to the environmental concerns that have fast gained traction over the last few years, as well as the finite reserves of fossil fuels, it’s not hard to see why people are looking for alternative energy sources.

Many countries have undertaken massive investments over the last decade in renewable energy, with solar and wind being the most popular. Still, it doesn’t seem like any of these have managed to make a significant dent in the world’s energy needs. That’s where hydrogen power comes in. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it can be used to power fuel cells which generate electricity with water as the only by-product.

The idea of using hydrogen as an energy source is not a new one. Hydrogen has been used as fuel since the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the last few decades that the technology needed to make it a viable energy source on a large scale started to develop.

We can produce hydrogen from various sources, but a common method is electrolysis, which involves passing an electric current through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then collected and stored in pressurized tanks until it’s needed, like any other gas.

If the process is carried out using renewable energy sources, like solar or wind power, then the entire cycle is emissions-free. This is what is referred to as “green hydrogen,” and it’s the kind that is most often touted as the energy source of the future. However, if the electrolysis process is done using fossil fuels, as was the case until recently, there will be high levels of emissions involved.

Compared to other renewable energy sources, hydrogen has a lot of advantages. For one, hydrogen is very energy-dense, meaning that a small amount of gas contains a large amount of energy. It’s easy to store and transport, as it can be compressed into liquid form, which is a massive advantage over solar and wind power, which are difficult to store.

Another advantage is that hydrogen-powered fuel cells can be used to generate electricity on demand, which is not the case with solar and wind power, which are dependent on weather conditions. From an environmental perspective, hydrogen is the cleanest energy source available when made using renewable energy sources. When used in a fuel cell, the only by-product is water vapor, meaning there are no carbon dioxide emissions or other greenhouse gases.

Despite its advantages, hydrogen power does have some drawbacks. Hydrogen is a highly flammable gas, which means there’s a risk of explosions if it’s not handled correctly. The biggest drawback, however, is the cost. Hydrogen fuel cells are still very expensive to produce, and the infrastructure needed to store and transport hydrogen is also costly. Although the cost is coming down as the technology improves, it’s still a significant barrier to widespread adoption today.

Presently, most of the hydrogen produced is used in the chemical industry for industrial processes, but there are a few examples of it being used as a fuel. The most notable example is the transportation sector, where two major manufacturers, Toyota and Hyundai, already market hydrogen-powered vehicles, and many more are planned for the coming years.

Hydrogen power could also change the face of public transport, with Germany recently becoming the first country to introduce a rail line that is entirely powered by it. Beyond transport, there’s an interest in using hydrogen over traditional carbon based power plants, especially where’s there’s plenty of sun or wind. The surplus renewable energy from solar or wind could be used to generate hydrogen when demand is low, and then generate electricity when demand is high, using the stored hydrogen as a fuel. Several US power plants have already announced plans to switch to this model in the coming years.

If we’re ever to adopt hydrogen power on a large scale, the cost needs to come down dramatically. The US Department of Energy has taken on the challenge. As part of their “Energy Earthshots” initiative, aimed at driving innovation in clean energy technologies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, they announced their “Hydrogen Shot” project a year ago.

The project aims to bring the cost of hydrogen fuel production down by 80% within the next decade, from around $5 per kilogram today to $1. They’ve allocated $9.5 billion in funding to build at least four clean hydrogen hubs and support research and development in the field.

And it’s not just the US that’s investing in hydrogen. In 2020 the EU adopted a dedicated hydrogen strategy to make it a key enabler of the EU’s climate objectives. Their target is to produce 10 million tonnes and import another 10 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2030.

With the climate crisis looming large, the need for clean energy sources that can replace fossil fuels has never been greater. We need alternative energy sources that are renewable, abundant, and don’t have a detrimental effect on the environment.

Despite its drawbacks, hydrogen power is seen as a promising alternative energy source, and many countries are investing in developing the technology and sourcing of renewable hydrogen. If the cost of hydrogen fuel cells can be reduced and the infrastructure needed to store and transport hydrogen can be developed according to current plans, then it’s possible that hydrogen power could play a significant role in meeting the world’s future energy needs.

Written by Editorial Team

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