“The holy grail” of the energy future – hydrogen may soon have a very serious problem, which, if not solved quickly, will bring the whole “hydrogen revolution” to a halt. This is caused by the already absolute certainty that hydrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere reacts with tropospheric hydroxyl (OH) radicals. Therefore, its uncontrolled emission into the atmosphere disturbs the distribution and holds dangerously the decomposition of methane, ozone or water vapour, which can lead us, in the short term, to a possible climate cataclysm.
To better understand the looming problem, let’s first introduce the two main protagonists of this threat – hydrogen and methane, leaving ozone and water vapour in supporting roles.
Hydrogen is expected to play a key role in decarbonizing the world’s energy system over the next 30 years. Currently, it is very difficult to estimate the growth of hydrogen production by 2050. However, according to some projections assuming zero net emissions, hydrogen consumption will still increase globally by more than five times by 2050 – that is, to about 500 million tons per year, with a significant increase to more than 90% for green hydrogen.
To date, however, no one has paid much attention to the potential contribution of hydrogen leakage to climate change and the impact of hydrogen on global warming through mechanisms that extend the life of methane and other greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Moreover, no solid research has been conducted on this topic either, and all available data on possible hydrogen leakage throughout its supply chain comes from highly theoretical and unproven data and simulations, not from operational measurements.
Risks of hydrogen leakage have been identified throughout the hydrogen supply value chain, at every stage: production, transportation, storage and end-use. Theoretical simulations conducted confirm the varying levels of these leaks, for different types of hydrogen produced, at each stage of the supply quantity, which oscillate from 1 even to 10% of the world’s annual hydrogen production.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that hydrogen, as is well known, is an explosive mixture only at concentrations above 4% with air, all the effort of existing methods of measuring possible hydrogen leakage from the supply chain, has focused on local not exceeding this amount in a given short time unit (mainly indoors). Therefore, most permeability standards for materials allowed to come into contact with hydrogen typically end at 2- 3% hydrogen loss per year.
This means that, by law, as much as 2- 3% of the hydrogen found in them continuously throughout the year can enter the earth’s atmosphere. To this figure should be added any losses due to lack of proper servicing or wear and tear of equipment, human error, as well as random accidents.
All in all, experts estimate, therefore, the current rate of continuous hydrogen leakage ranges from 2.9% (low-risk case) to 5.6% (high-risk case) of all annual hydrogen production, which currently means the release of pure hydrogen into the Earth’s atmosphere at a rate of 2.9 to 5.6 million tons per year.
If these trends do not improve immediately and hydrogen production increases fivefold in 2050, these numbers will automatically rise to a range of 14.5 to 28 million tons of leakage per year.
To show the magnitude of the problem, let’s say that the EU as a whole currently consumes about 8 million tons of hydrogen per year of which only less than 0.3 million tons – is green hydrogen.
Therefore, minimizing leakage must be a priority if hydrogen is adopted as a major or even important energy source in the future.
Carbon dioxide can persist in the Earth’s atmosphere for up to thousands of years, while methane disappears after about 10-30 years. The problem, however, is that the presence of methane in the atmosphere (over 20 years) can be up to 100 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Thus, methane is a very dangerous greenhouse gas that comes not only from typical human industrial activities (mainly extractive industries), but is also and will always be derived from agricultural waste, landfills and the broader agricultural sector. Significant emissions of Methane also come from natural wetlands and the animal world.
Methane from industrial production itself is not free of leaks either, but, as in hydrogen, it is difficult to clearly determine the scale of this phenomenon, assuming their magnitude to be between 1 and 3% of its annual production.
Therefore, while it is possible to measure the reduction of methane emissions in the industrial sphere and oil, gas and coal extraction, slower or faster, realizing the reduction in the sphere of agriculture and natural sources of methane emissions, is very difficult to execute, especially since even a slight increase in the Earth’s temperature amplifies natural methane emissions, thus driving the greenhouse effect.
Unfortunately, the annual balance of methane in the atmosphere is increasingly positive, which unequivocally worsens our climate crisis.
Hydrogen + Methane
“Hydrogen is theoretically the fuel of the future,” – said Matteo Bertagni, a postdoctoral fellow at the High Meadows Environmental Institute, who is working on a carbon reduction initiative.
The problem of how hydrogen and methane interact in the atmosphere concentrates in one small molecule that is difficult to measure, known as the hydroxyl radical (OH). Also often referred to as the “detergent of the troposphere,” this is because it plays a key role in eliminating greenhouse gasses such as methane and ozone from the atmosphere.
The hydroxyl radical also reacts with hydrogen gas in the atmosphere. And since a limited amount of OH is generated each day, each growth in hydrogen emissions means that more OH will be used to the decomposition of hydrogen, leaving less OH available to decompose the methane. Consequently, methane would remain in the atmosphere longer, prolonging its warming effects.
According to M. Bertagni, the effects of hydrogen level growth, which could occur as government incentives for hydrogen production expand, could have climate consequences for the planet for decades.
“If you emit some hydrogen into the atmosphere now, it will lead to a gradual buildup of methane in the years to come, ” Bertagni said. “Although hydrogen only has a lifetime of about two years in the atmosphere, you will still get methane from that hydrogen in 30 years.”
M.Bertagni is the first author of a scientific paper published in Nature Communications, in which scientists modelled the effects of hydrogen emissions on atmospheric methane. They found that above a certain level, even when fossil fuels are replaced, a leaky hydrogen economy can cause short-term environmental damage by increasing the amount of methane in the atmosphere. The risk of harm is magnified for hydrogen production methods using methane as a resource, (the current share of low-emitting hydrogen in global hydrogen production is only less than 1%) highlighting the critical need to manage and minimize emissions from hydrogen production.
“Managing hydrogen and methane leakage rates will be critical,” Bertagni said. “If you only have a small amount of methane leakage and some hydrogen leakage, the blue hydrogen you produce may not be much better than using fossil fuels, at least for the next 20 to 30 years”
Professor Matteo Bertagni’s justified concern is also confirmed by other recognized world experts and scientists. sometimes pointing out other additional, equally important aspects of the problem
Last August, for example, Professor Steven Hamburg and his colleague Ilissa Ocko published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics which concluded that hydrogen leakage could halve the climate benefits of green hydrogen alone.
In contrast, according to a recent UK government report last year (prepared by researchers at the University of Cambridge and NCAS and Keith Shine, University of Reading), hydrogen was found to be about 11 times stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, or 33 times stronger over a 20-year period.
It is difficult today to determine precisely what effect the already present production of hydrogen with its leaks has on the increase in the positive balance of methane in the asthenosphere (recall the lack of detailed data). It is also difficult to determine, given the complexity of the entire process of climate change on Earth, when the planned increase in hydrogen production in the future will have an important or decisive impact on the possible climate crisis.
However, one thing is certain – we are currently walking with hydrogen on very “thin ice” which could break at any moment.
So, if the world’s institutions hope to meet their mid-century climate goals, Bertagni warned that hydrogen and methane leakage into the atmosphere must be controlled when hydrogen infrastructure begins to develop like this and because hydrogen is a small molecule that is very difficult to control and measure, he noted, managing emissions will likely require researchers to develop better methods for tracking hydrogen losses throughout their value chain.
“If companies and governments are serious about investing money in developing hydrogen as a resource, they need to make sure they are doing it correctly and efficiently,” Bertagni warned. “Ultimately, the hydrogen economy must be built in a way that does not counteract the efforts of other sectors to reduce carbon emissions.”
Hydrogen is a very specific gas we don’t yet know well. Its small and difficult-to-contain molecule is also subjected to much higher pressures for transport and storage than methane because that’s the only way to ensure its economic efficiency. These pressures naturally further increase its leakage. Current detection technologies on the market that are capable of revealing smaller leaks – which would affect the climate, but not safety – are actually not yet available, despite intense attempts to make them.
The latest great hope in terms of reliable and authoritative measurements of the scale and location of hydrogen leaks is – the Laser Spectroscopy Analyzer, developed by the U.S. company Aerodyne Research with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, which represents a 100-fold advance over today’s equipment of this type and is being built and deployed to detect leaks and high concentrations of hydrogen in the atmosphere.
According to the U.S. nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, the new technology can detect hydrogen leaks at concentrations as small as ten parts per billion (0.000001%), which could represent a breakthrough in understanding hydrogen’s impact on the climate with the current “hydrogen revolution.”
The device makes it possible to track hydrogen emissions at climate-concerning levels using mobile equipment that can be placed in a vehicle or small aircraft. Leakage monitoring is likely to be required for future green hydrogen projects benefiting from government subsidies, such as in the US and EU.
At this point, however, the question must be asked: what will detailed and very costly monitoring of all elements of the entire global hydrogen supply chain infrastructure really accomplish? – Since it is known that there are smaller or larger losses of it almost everywhere. And other additional questions, for example – what will we do next, what standards of measurement and climate risk will we adopt here, how will we respond to them, and how will we repair, eliminating these vulnerable places, filled all the time with volatile hydrogen?
We must also all finally ask ourselves – how much will all this cost, and how will it consequently affect the final price of hydrogen and its entire revolution?
Therefore, since the current remedial methods can and are “a road to nowhere” it is necessary in this urgent and complicated situation to seek a different philosophy, in the form of unconventional solutions and opportunities to immediately improve the effects of hydrogen use. To do so effectively, it is necessary to radically change our way of thinking and perceiving this problem.
Considering: Hydrogen Bar System
HBS – is a comprehensive system of solutions for the storage and transportation of all types of hydrogen for industry, services and consumers.
“When I started working on HBS two years ago, I was familiar with the problems of hydrogen leakage throughout the hydrogen supply chain,” said Jerzy Jurasz, inventor and author of the HBS concept.
“Therefore, in addition to the simplicity, safety and low price of the system, I also wanted to be able to contribute to reducing hydrogen leakage into the Earth’s atmosphere in a simple way at the same time.”
One of the objectives of HBS is to reduce the length of the hydrogen supply value as much as possible, while combining the functions of transporting and storing the gas, without the involvement of the human factor.
“If we shorten hydrogen supply chains as much as possible, avoid transhipment and produce hydrogen as close to the point of use as possible” (Distributed Energy), -Jurasz adds,- “we will already naturally reduce hydrogen leakage from these systems.”
However, the whole magic and simplicity of this idea vis-à-vis hydrogen losses, actually begins and ends elsewhere, because under the Earth’s surface.
It has long been experimentally demonstrated that nine of the ten dominant types of soil around the world oxidize atmospheric hydrogen. Soil bacteria are the main ecological absorber in the global biogeochemical hydrogen cycle.
In fact, as much as 75- 80% of atmospheric hydrogen is absorbed by soil and only 20-25% is utilized by OH.
“So since it can be absorbed from above, all the more it can be done from below as well,” says Jurasz, “additionally, since almost 99% of our HBS plant is underground and the soil will naturally oxidize and retain any loss of our hydrogen, we don’t have to worry so much about it and develop expensive systems of measuring equipment underground, and this is also another cost saving.”
It is impossible to say unequivocally today, due to the lack of measurements and operational studies, whether the possibility of placing by means of boreholes and horizontal drilling, hydrogen pipelines and hydrogen storage facilities at even quite considerable depths in the Earth at the same time, will also have a natural, positive effect on the sealing of these systems themselves. However, we can conclude that the idea of moving hydrogen supply chains underground will certainly make a significant contribution to slowing down the loss of hydrogen into the Earth’s atmosphere in the short term, and will have a positive impact on the cost of the investments themselves.
HBS – is a completely different and novel approach to the problem of hydrogen loss.
The idea of this approach in this solution is very similar to the innovative solutions for safety conditions in HBS. – Where, since we can’t really technologically guarantee 100% the safety of a hydrogen plant explosion, let’s design and place them underground to ensure full control over any possible explosions.
Such a condition will not only significantly break down the psychological barriers of potential users of these installations, but also, at the same time, significantly reduce the cost of their construction and operation.
Similarly – So, if we can’t 100% (and we probably won’t be able to for the next 20-30 years) seal and monitor the avalanche-forming hydrogen supply chains, then let’s design and place them underground so as to at least control and not introduce any loss of hydrogen into the atmosphere. Such a state of affairs will not only radically affect our climate and allow us to build new hydrogen plants without inhibition, but in the process let’s also lower their cost of construction and operation.
“Today, I can’t unequivocally say to what extent HBS can contribute to solving the problem of hydrogen loss, especially on a global scale,” Jurasz pointed out, “this requires further work and research, and of course, the sheer spread of this system. However, if we are talking about such large-scale hydrogenation of society as is planned, even the scale of up to 10% of its dissemination will already be counted in millions and not tens of tons of hydrogen retained on and actually under the Earth and this already means the possibility of a significant rest for our climate”
In addition, it has also long been known that hydrogen atoms have a very beneficial effect on the growth of any, including food, plants and are absorbed by them. Today, a little in the shadow of the ” global hydrogen revolution,” there is also the development of ecological “hydrogen agriculture” in the world. – increasingly desired by new consumers.
Here, hydrogen is used to fertilize the soil with hydrogen with expensive – hydrogen water.
So there is nothing to prevent growing even more organic food over HBS systems to absorb climate-threatening hydrogen losses from the soil.