The technology to produce hydrogen has existed for decades, so why is it only now gaining traction as a source of clean energy?
There’s no dearth of climate change deniers who vehemently dispute global warming, including former U.S. President Donald Trump. But the world has largely woken up to one of the gravest challenges staring us in the face this century.
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) included access to affordable and clean energy and climate action in its sustainable development goals. In 2016, hundreds of countries signed the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
It is clear that renewable and sustainable energy plays a critical role in the fight against climate change. The road to decarbonization involves not only taking measures to limit CO2 emissions, but also the development of zero-emission vehicles.
Both startups and corporates are driving toward this goal, by introducing electric cars and vehicles powered by renewable sources of energy like hydrogen. For instance, General Motors, one of the largest automakers in the world, announced last week that it will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035 and become carbon neutral by 2040.
While solar energy has been grabbing the headlines in the renewable energies sector, the importance of hydrogen is steadily growing. The Hydrogen Council, a global consortium that leads the effort to develop the hydrogen economy, envisions that by 2050, hydrogen will power over 400 million cars, 15 to 20 million trucks, and around 5 million buses.
The group also hopes that hydrogen will contribute to 18% of total global energy demand by 2050, while the hydrogen economy will reach total sales of $2.5 trillion. But before it can do any of this, consumers need to understand it: how hydrogen energy is obtained, its various applications, and why it’s so important.
The hydrogen rainbow: gray, brown, blue, and green
The technology to produce and use hydrogen as an energy has existed for decades. But not all hydrogen can be regarded as a completely renewable and sustainable energy source, despite hydrogen inherently being a clean substance. The difference in the sustainability factor comes from the various different techniques used to produce hydrogen.
“Hydrogen does not exist in great abundance naturally on its own. There is a lot of hydrogen on the planet, but it is all tied up in other molecules, so you need to split other molecules to make hydrogen,” says Dr. Patrick Hartley, Leader of the Hydrogen Industry Mission of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian governmental agency for scientific research.
For instance, around 95% of all hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming (SMR). In this method, hydrocarbon fuels like natural gas, diesel, or biomass react with water under high temperatures to produce hydrogen.
SMR also produces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and is, therefore, an unsustainable method of producing hydrogen. That’s why hydrogen produced using SMR is referred to as ‘grey’ hydrogen.
Another process of producing hydrogen is coal gassification. This involves coal reacting with oxygen and steam under high pressures and temperatures to form a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Hydrogen produced using this method is called ‘brown’ hydrogen.
‘Blue’ hydrogen uses carbon capture and storage for the green house gases produced by grey hydrogen manufacture. Gases emitted during the SMR process may even be significantly decarbonized in order to mitigate the environmental impact.
Naturally, blue hydrogen is what most countries are exploring as a means of reducing emissions. That’s because most countries already have the infrastructure to produce grey hydrogen in large scale. Modifying the infrastructure to ensure that carbon is effectively captured, stored, and utilized would take take less time than setting up the infrastructure to produce hydrogen in a completely green and sustainable way.
This sustainable method of producing hydrogen with the help of renewable energy is explained simply by Hartley.
“You can take the hydrogen out of water by splitting water using a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to break that molecule (H2O) up and produce oxygen and hydrogen,” Hartley explains. The hydrogen produced using this method is called green hydrogen. The ultimate goal is to produce and use green hydrogen in the long term.
“This is the pathway which is particularly being developed at large scale now to try and decarbonize hydrogen production,” Hartley said in a panel at the Deep Tech Summit organized by SGInnovate late last year.
Hydrogen is extremely flammable, and can be burned directly as a gas, “just like you burn natural gas,” says Hartley. This makes it a strong candidate for partially replacing natural gas.
“In many countries, including in Australia, for instance, the gas networks industry, which [supplies] natural gas around the country, is looking at replacing some of its natural gas with hydrogen as a low emissions alternative,” says Hartley. In such cases, hydrogen would be used for both domestic and industrial purposes.
According to him, countries are also increasingly looking at using hydrogen in the production of chemicals like ammonia, plastics production, and as a fuel cell to produce electricity for vehicles. Hydrogen can also be used in stabilizing electricity supply and storing electricity, according to Hartley.
Use of hydrogen in mobility is gaining prominence
The area of hydrogen use that is increasingly gaining popularity is hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. Jumpstart spoke to Australia-based hydrogen fuel cell vehicle startup H2X to understand how they work.
“Basically, the hydrogen fuel cell is a tool which takes hydrogen, mixes it together with oxygen, going through a series of plates, that creates an electric reaction,” says H2X CEO Brendan Norman.
“That electric reaction is used to empower the motors, which is either used for industrial application or of course for movement in the case of vehicles, and also boats,” he adds.
In other words, the hydrogen fuel cells help generate electricity that helps run the car. But Norman says these vehicles have a significant advantage over normal electric vehicles (EVs). Where EVs need to be at a charging point for a certain period of time in order to refill their batteries, hydrogen can easily be carried around. Besides, the time taken to refill a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is much less than the time taken to charge an EV.
“You can fill a bus with hydrogen in about 15 minutes,” says Norman. “Whereas if you have an electric bus, if you’re going to fill it to the point where it could run pretty much all day, it’s going to take a good six plus hours to do so.”
This means that hydrogen provides the option for commercial vehicles to run practically 24×7. On the other hand, electric commercial vehicles need to spend considerable amounts of time charging – time that could otherwise be utilized for business, says Norman.
Refuelling hydrogen vehicles is also easy, Norman says. Hydrogen is a gas that can be filled in the vehicle just like LPG or CNG. Hydrogen vehicles can also deliver the same distance that a petrol or diesel vehicle can deliver, says Norman. He claims that a hydrogen car can travel around 600-700 kilometers on a full tank, where EVs remain more limited, although companies are constantly improving their range.
Besides, Norman claims that H2X’s engines last much longer compared to EV batteries and petrol car engines.
“And they stay clean the whole time, which is another big difference, of course, to petrol vehicles as their filters get worn out,” says Norman.
H2X plans to launch a series of vehicles in 2022, including an SUV called Snowy, a van, and a boat due to launch this year. The startup is also working on a train project, developing heavy vehicles like tractors, and is exploring other hydrogen applications like mining equipment, says Norman.
What’s preventing mass adoption of hydrogen?
Hartley says price is still a major barrier to the adoption of hydrogen. Hydrogen is still more expensive than fossil fuel. However, he says that based on CSIRO research, hydrogen prices are starting to become more competitive.
According to Wood Mackenzie predictions, the cost of green hydrogen will fall by up to 64% and become competitive with other fuels by 2040. A 2020 report by the Hydrogen Council, on the other hand, predicts a fall in hydrogen prices by up to 50% by 2030 to become competitive with low-carbon alternatives and conventional fuel options.
At present, hydrogen vehicles are also more expensive than petrol or diesel cars. However, Norman believes that once H2X reaches a production volume of 10,000-30,000, it will be able to drop prices.
Another major obstacle to the mass adoption of hydrogen vehicles is the lack of essential infrastructure like hydrogen gas stations, without which hydrogen-powered vehicles cannot be sold. Norman believes the buildout of this infrastructure will start by 2024, which would help accelerate H2X sales and propel hydrogen vehicles into the mainstream.
Hydrogen and a sustainable future for combustible fuel
“I think that by 2023-24, we’ll start to see a real pickup in terms of the [hydrogen] vehicles that are on the road,” says Norman. He believes that the infrastructure to support hydrogen vehicles will start to come up in two to three years, since a lot of these projects are currently being discussed in Southeast Asia and India.
“And by 2025, I think you’ll find that there’ll be certain cities which have a decent number of these [hydrogen] vehicles on board to say that the technology has really arrived,” says Norman.
But in terms of replacing fossil fuels, Hartley believes hydrogen still has a long way to go.
“Obviously, we have a huge dependence in all of our energy systems on the planet on using fossil fuels,” says Hartley. “And that will take a long time to wind down.”
“Many countries are looking at 2050, for instance, as a time when they can achieve net zero emissions,” he adds. “But hydrogen will be and will only be a part of the solution.”
As SGInnovate Venture Investing Executive Director Tong Hsien-Hui puts it, “As we pursue these emerging energy options, we need to be mindful not to put all our eggs into one basket.
“The development and adoption of low-carbon technologies, be it green or blue hydrogen, or wind energy and solar power, is just one piece of a larger puzzle in creating a resilient and sustainable world for us to live in,” he says.
Images courtesy of H2X