Will hydrogen fuel our future?
With fossil fuels becoming scarce, and the perils of climate change all too evident, considerable attention is being focused on the opportunities provided by alternative fuel sources – with hydrogen increasingly seen as the most promising fuel source.
The development of hydrogen technology has become very prominent within the past decade. In September 2018, Germany began operating the world’s first train powered by hydrogen fuel cells. India has begun retrofitting diesel trains to run on hydrogen fuel. According to the Indian Ministry of Railways the new fuel cells will allow savings of Rs2.3 crore annually.
Toyota is already one of the largest producers of hydrogen powered cars, with its first generation Mirai cars capable of driving 300 miles on one 11 lb hydrogen tank. Hydrogen batteries are far quicker to refuel compared to conventional electric ones, the only by product is water and the hydrogen powered vehicles are virtually silent in use.
The first passenger flight in a plane powered by hydrogen fuel cells has already taken place when ZeroAvia retrofitted a six-seater plane in 2020.
Producing hydrogen fuel is becoming big business worldwide with major corporates like BP becoming involved alongside start up companies. Production methods are currently focusing on either green hydrogen created from wind power and solar energy, or blue hydrogen created via electrolysis water & steam systems.
Although blue hydrogen is popular around the world from Canada to Japan, Cornel University has sounded a note of caution pointing out that no data has been presented to support potential reductions of carbon dioxide emissions for blue hydrogen, and that current assumptions are too optimistic.
Considerable investment is being ploughed into the development of hydrogen technology. In 2021, the US department of Energy announced $52.5 million hydrogen acceleration projects while the EU has announced its intention to invest €470 billion into hydrogen technology creating up to 1m jobs. The UK’s hydrogen strategy aims to provide up to one third of the UK’s energy requirement by 2050, in deals worth around £13 billion.
One of the biggest hydrogen transport infrastructure projects has just been announced for northern Europe involving the governments of Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. A network of hydrogen fuelling stations will be constructed along major routes from Hamburg to Oslo.
In India the first hydrogen-based energy storage system is being piloted by Bloom Energy (India), a wholly owned subsidiary of US based Bloom Energy. The project involves utilising Bloom Energy’s solid oxide, high temperature electrolyser to create hydrogen from electricity produced by an adjacent solar farm. It will operate on a 24-hour basis, providing continual energy generation. The intention is that this initial project will provide the basis for large scale, off grid hydrogen energy storage and micro grid projects at locations throughout the country.
At a recent roundtable discussing the project, Garima Singh, senior manager of Energy and Environment for the U.S. India Strategic Partnership Forum, said: “The U.S.-India Gas Task Force is focused on stimulating demand for natural gas in India as well as on grid strengthening, to power India’s economy. The Task Force is appreciative of GAIL’s support in developing a growing network of LNG distribution across the country.”
Methods of production of hydrogen fuel are proving to be one of the most rapidly expanding areas of development involving numerous new inventions and discoveries. Scientists at Zurich University are currently testing a method in which solar kerosene jet fuel is produced out of a mix of sunlight, C02 and oxygen (syngas). In California, renewable energy startup Heliogen in collaboration with Bloom Energy has set up a massive array of mirrors linked by artificial intelligence to develop a sunlight refinery.
According to Bill Gross, founder and CEO of Heliogen “the mirrors act like a large, computer controlled magnifying glass.” The light is reflected to the top of the Sunlight Refinery tower, and turning it into hot air, which is stored in rocks below ground for later use.
Shining a light
Solar energy is just one of the ways in which hydrogen can be produced. It can also be created as a by-product of biomass. Professor Hubert Girault and his team at the EPFL, Lausanne has just developed a new method involving flashlight pyrolysis using a Zenon lamp.
The lamp acts as a high power energy source, releasing short pulses promoting photo-thermal chemical reactions on a variety of biomass materials including banana peels, corn cobs, coconut shells and orange peel which had been dried and ground to a fine powder. Within a few seconds of the Zenon lamp being switched on, the conversion process had been completed. One kilogram of dried biomass generated approximately 100 litres of hydrogen energy and 330 grams of biochar capable of being turned into fertiliser or for the manufacture of conductive electrodes.
The potential opportunities provided by hydrogen technology are also expanding into associated sectors. Electrolyser manufacturer CPH2 has developed a sustainable IP-protected membrane free electrolyser which do not require the use of platinum materials. Instead, CPH2’s innovative system uses cryogenic separation to remove excess moisture from a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases. This allows the recovery of heat and cold gas energy, which can be used by industries such as cement and glass production.
Hydrogen fuel is clearly here to stay and is set to provide an increasing proportion of the world’s fuel for many years to come.
Subscribe to our Editor's weekly newsletter