Hydrogen is neither the miraculous gas that devout believers believe it to be, nor the disaster that some abandoned hydrogen projects reveal.
By 2050, hydrogen technology may be able to reduce a tenth of present greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a small percentage, but given the scope of the energy revolution, it’s a critical and profitable one.
Before we go any further, it’s a good idea to think about H2’s qualities.
Hydrogen, unlike oil or coal, is not a major energy source. It’s best thought of as an energy transporter, comparable to electricity, as well as a storage medium, similar to a battery. It has to be made.
Water (H2O) may be separated into its constituents oxygen and hydrogen using low-carbon energy sources such as renewable energies and nuclear power. This is inefficient and costly, but expenses may be reduced.
Hydrogen may also be produced from fossil fuels, but this produces a lot of pollution unless it is combined with carbon capture and sequestration technology. In comparison to many other fuels, hydrogen is combustible and hefty.
Converting primary energy into hydrogen and subsequently hydrogen into useful energy is inefficient due to the inexorable rules of thermodynamics.
All of this helps to understand the gas’s convoluted history. The oil crises of the 1970s sparked interest in hydrogen technologies, but they never took off. The Soviet Union even launched a hydrogen-powered passenger jet in the 1980s, with the maiden trip taking only 21 minutes.
Climate change is igniting a fresh surge of enthusiasm today. More than 350 big projects are now in the works, with a total expenditure of $500 billion expected by 2030. Annual hydrogen sales might be worth $600 billion by 2050, according to Morgan Stanley, a bank. This is more than the existing $150 billion in revenue, which is mostly derived from industrial activities, such as fertilizer manufacturing.
Hydrogen is a world traveler: India is planning hydrogen auctions shortly, while Chile is launching bids for its production on public lands. Hydrogen programs are in the works in more than a dozen nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea.
The hype, on the other hand, should not lead us to assign a function to gas that it is not capable of fulfilling. So here are a few things it can’t do:
Companies in Japan and South Korea are keen to offer hydrogen-powered vehicles, although battery-powered vehicles are approximately twice as efficient.
Certain European countries want to use hydrogen to heat their houses, but heat pumps are more efficient, and some pipelines are unable to securely handle the gas.
Some large energy corporations and governments aim to create hydrogen from natural gas without adequately absorbing the carbon, but this would not reduce emissions.
In specialized sectors that demand complicated chemical processes and high temperatures that are difficult to obtain with electricity, hydrogen can help.
Steel industry, which account for around 8% of world emissions, rely on coking coal and blast furnaces, which cannot be replaced by wind energy but may be replaced by hydrogen via a process called direct reduction.
In August, Hybrit, a Swedish collaboration, sold the world’s first green steel made this manner.
ArcelorMittal Gent is also spending over a billion euros to replace one of its two current blast furnaces with a hydrogen-powered electrical system.
Commercial transportation is another specialty, particularly for journeys beyond the range of batteries. With faster refueling, more cargo room, and a longer range, hydrogen trucks potentially outperform their battery-powered competitors.
Aviation and shipping may both benefit from hydrogen-based fuels.
Alstom, a French business, for example, operates hydrogen locomotives on European railroads.
Finally, hydrogen may be employed to store and carry energy in large quantities. When the wind dies or it gets dark, renewable systems have a hard time keeping up. Batteries can assist, but renewable energy can be transformed to hydrogen and stored for lengthy periods of time before being converted to electricity when needed.
Clean energy in the form of hydrogen may be exported from sunny and windy locations with no transmission lines.
Australia, Chile, and Morocco, for example, want to send “sunshine” over the world.
The list of uses for hydrogen can be increased now that so much money has been put on it. The private sector is responsible for the majority of the work, although governments can also help.
One of the goals is to combat “greenwashing”: hydrogen produced from polluting sources without high-quality carbon capture is not good for the environment. New laws are needed to quantify and disclose life cycle emissions from hydrogen production, and international cooperation is required because hydrogen will be exchanged across borders.
Hydrogen has inherent limits, but it has the potential to play a critical part in the transition to greener energy.