Hydrogen makes up more than 90% of all the atoms in the entire universe and is the simplest element on earth, is composed of only one proton and one electron. Not only that, but it’s also a very effective energy carrier which can be produced from renewable energies through electrolysis with water, leaving only oxygen as a byproduct.

Not surprisingly, hydrogen is seen as one of the most promising ways to reach carbon neutrality, following many countries’ new CO2-emission reduction targets. According to the Hydrogen Council, a global CEO-led initiative of 81 leading energy, transport and industry companies launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, by 2050, hydrogen account for almost one fifth (18%) of final energy demand from households and businesses and create 30 million jobs.

What is hydrogen used for?

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water, electricity, and heat. Hydrogen and fuel cells can play an important role in our national energy strategy, with the potential for use in a broad range of applications, across virtually all sectors—transportation, commercial, industrial, residential, and portable.

Hydrogen and fuel cells can provide energy for use in diverse applications, including distributed or combined-heat-and-power; backup power; systems for storing and enabling renewable energy; portable power; auxiliary power for trucks, aircraft, rail, and ships; speciality vehicles such as forklifts; and passenger and freight vehicles including cars, trucks, and buses.

Due to their high efficiency and zero-or near-zero emissions operation, hydrogen and fuel cells have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in many applications. Energy Department-funded analysis has shown that hydrogen and fuel cells have the potential to achieve the following reductions in emissions:

  • Light-duty highway vehicles: more than 50% to more than 90% reduction in emissions over today’s gasoline vehicles.
  • Speciality vehicles: more than 35% reduction in emissions over current diesel and battery-powered lift trucks.
  • Transit buses: demonstrated fuel economies of approximately 1.5 times greater than diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) buses and approximately 2 times higher than natural gas ICE buses.
  • Auxiliary power units (APUs): more than 60% reduction in emissions compared to truck engine idling.
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) systems: 35% to more than 50% reduction in emissions over conventional heat and power sources (with much greater reductions—more than 80%—if biogas or hydrogen from low- or zero-carbon sources is used in the fuel cell)

What are advantages of hydrogen as a fuel?

Hydrogen fuel cell technology  presents several advantages over other power sources, including:

1. Renewable and Readily Available: Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe and despite the challenges associated with its extraction from water, is a uniquely abundant and renewable source of energy, perfect for our future zero-carbon needs for combined heat and power supplies.

2. Hydrogen is a Clean and Flexible Energy Source to support Zero-Carbon Energy Strategies: Hydrogen fuel cells provide an inherently clean source of energy, with no adverse environmental impact during operation as the byproducts are simply heat and water.

3. More Powerful and Energy Efficient than Fossil Fuels: Hydrogen fuel cell technology provides a high-density source of energy with good energy efficiency. Hydrogen has the highest energy content of any common fuel by weight. High pressure gaseous and liquid hydrogen have around three times the gravimetric energy density (around 120MJ/kg) of diesel and LNG and a similar volumetric energy density to natural gas.

4. Highly Efficient when Compared to Other Energy Sources: Hydrogen fuel cells are more efficient than many other energy sources, including many green energy solutions. This fuel efficiency allows for the production of more energy per pound of fuel. For example, a conventional combustion-based power plant generates electricity at 33-35% efficiency compared to up to 65% for hydrogen fuel cells. The same goes for vehicles, where hydrogen fuel cells use 40-60% of the fuel’s energy while also offering a 50% reduction in fuel consumption.

5. Almost Zero Emissions: Hydrogen fuel cells do not generate greenhouse gas emissions as fossil fuel sources, thus reducing pollution and improving air quality as a result.

How Hydrogen is made?

To produce hydrogen, it must be separated from the other elements in the molecules where it occurs. There are many different sources of hydrogen and ways of producing it for use as a fuel. The two most common methods for producing hydrogen are steam-methane reforming and electrolysis (splitting water with electricity.

Steam-methane reforming is a widely used method of commercial hydrogen production

Steam-methane reforming currently accounts for nearly all commercially produced hydrogen in the United States. Commercial hydrogen producers and petroleum refineries use steam-methane reforming to separate hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms in methane (CH4).

In steam-methane reforming, high-temperature steam (1,300°F to 1,800°F) under 3–25 bar pressure (1 bar = 14.5 pounds per square inch) reacts with methane in the presence of a catalyst to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Natural gas is the main methane source for hydrogen production by industrial facilities and petroleum refineries.  Landfill gas/biogas, which may be called biomethane or renewable natural gas, is a source of hydrogen for several fuel cell power plants in the United States. Biofuels and petroleum fuels are also potential hydrogen sources.

Electrolysis uses electricity to produce hydrogen

Electrolysis is a process that splits hydrogen from water using an electric current. Electrolysis is commonly used to demonstrate chemical reactions and hydrogen production in high school science classes. On a large, commercial scale, the process may be referred to as power-to-gas, where power is electricity and hydrogen is gas. Electrolysis itself does not produce any by-products or emissions other than hydrogen and oxygen.

The electricity for electrolysis can come from renewable sources, nuclear energy, or fossil fuels. If the electricity for electrolysis is produced from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) or biomass combustion, then the related environmental effects and CO2 emissions are indirectly associated with that hydrogen.

Other methods of producing hydrogen

Research is underway to develop other ways to produce hydrogen and a few includes:

  • Using microbes that use light to make hydrogen
  • Converting biomass into gas or liquids and separating the hydrogen
  • Using solar energy technologies to split hydrogen from water molecules

Hydrogen production companies

Here are just a few of the many companies pushing hydrogen technology forward.

1. Linde

Linde is the largest industrial gas company in the world by revenue and market share. They’re currently part of the Hydrogen Council, which consists of several organisations that are investing in hydrogen vehicles and pushing hydrogen technology forward.

The company first started looking into the use of hydrogen as a carbon-free fuel in the mid-1970s. Since then, they’ve become leaders in the transition to clean hydrogen, having developed the largest liquid hydrogen distribution system and capacity in the world.

Linde also operates the world’s first high-purity hydrogen storage cavern and has over a thousand kilometres of pipelines. So far, they’ve installed more than 200 hydrogen fuelling stations and 80 electrolysis plants throughout the world.

2. Air Products & Chemicals

Air Products and Chemicals is an American organisation, founded in 1940 and headquartered in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which specialises in selling chemicals and gases for industrial purposes.

In 2010, the company was awarded the Rushlight Hydrogen and Fuel Cells industry award for its Series 100 hydrogen fuelling station. This award celebrates ground-breaking environmental discoveries, technologies and innovations within Ireland and the UK. It aims to promote to a wider public what the hydrogen and fuel cells industry is doing towards reducing global carbon emissions and to encourage further development and funding within the sector.

3. Ballard Power Systems

Ballard Power Systems, founded in 1979 and based in Canada, develops and manufactures proton exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cell products. They produce heavy-duty modules, marine and stationary systems, fuel cell stacks, and backup power systems.

In 2020, fuel cell electric vehicles powered by Ballard reached a total distance of 50 million kilometres – enough to go around the earth 1,250 times. They also launched the FCwave, their high-performance fuel cell module specifically designed to provide zero-emission power to marine vessels.

4. Ceres Power

Ceres Power is an engineering and fuel cell technology business. The technology they’ve been working on over the past 20 years, the SteelCell, was initially developed by Professor Brian Steele, from Imperial College in London.

Not only is their main technology cost-efficient and scalable, but fuel cells can also save up to 33 per cent of an average household’s energy bill and CO2 emissions, with nearly no SOx and NOx emissions. Ceres’s SteelCell technology can generate energy from conventional fuels like natural gas but can also do so using sustainable fuels like biogas, ethanol, and hydrogen, making it a very flexible source of power.

5. Air Liquide

Air Liquide is a French company, founded in 1902, which supplies industrial gases and services to a range of industries including chemical, medical, food, and electronics manufacturing. They’re the second-largest industrial gas supplier in the world by revenue, after Linde, and operate in more than eighty countries around the world.

They have been working on hydrogen production, storage, and distribution solutions for more than 40 years. Their Blue Hydrogen programme is committed to progressively decarbonising its production of hydrogen for energy applications. They pledged to produce at least 50% of the hydrogen necessary for these applications through carbon-free processes by 2020, which include:

  • biogas reforming
  • using renewable energies, through water electrolysis
  • using technologies for the capture and upgrading of carbon emitted during the production of hydrogen from natural gas.

Conclusion

Hydrogen and energy have a long shared history – powering the first internal combustion engines over 200 years ago to becoming an integral part of the modern refining industry. It is light, storable, energy-dense, and produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. But for hydrogen to make a significant contribution to clean energy transitions, it needs to be adopted in sectors where it is almost completely absent, such as transport, buildings and power generation.

The greatest challenge for hydrogen production, particularly from renewable resources, is providing hydrogen at a lower cost. For transportation fuel cells, hydrogen must be cost-competitive with conventional fuels and technologies on a per-mile basis. This means that the cost of hydrogen—regardless of the production technology—must be less than $4/ gallon of gasoline-equivalent. To reduce overall hydrogen cost, research is focused on improving the efficiency and lifetime of hydrogen production technologies as well as reducing the cost of capital equipment, operations, and maintenance.

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