Have you ever watched a video of NASA’s space shuttle launch wondering how these enormous structures are pulled away from the Earth’s gravity? The strength of these shuttles relies on the fuel consisting of the lightest and the most abundant element around us – hydrogen. Hydrogen also has the potential to be used as a source of energy for our daily activities, and who knows; maybe one day we’ll have a “hydrogen-powered cities”. The benefits are numerous but the question is, are we prepared for the hydrogen economy?
Tackling the problem of the climate crisis
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), this year was the warmest in five years. During the period 2015 – 2019 the tell-tale impacts of climate change have increased rapidly and greenhouse gases have reached their peak. Despite the 2015 Paris Agreement when 196 countries have committed to limit the warming trend, temperatures increased by 1,5 degrees C and global carbon emissions rose by 2.7 % in 2018 with the highest annual rise being recorded in 2019, 414.7 parts per million (ppm). Each signatory has submitted its national plan for reducing these numbers, and countries all around the world are already seeing hydrogen as one of the possible solutions. Working on developing a new “hydrogen economy” could be a win-win solution for all, since hydrogen has a longlasting potential to become “the fuel of the future”.
Hydrogen as a renewable source of energy
Hydrogen as the simplest element makes up 75% of the mass of the entire universe. There are three major key steps when it comes to using hydrogen as a renewable source of energy: hydrogen production, storage and delivery, and consumption (or converting its energy into other useful forms of energy). Most of the hydrogen produced today is from natural gas and coal as a constituent element of ammonia and methanol. However, hydrogen can also be isolated via electrolysis free from emissions. Reconverted through the electrochemical conversion into electrical, heating or motion power, hydrogen only produces water as a by-product. This means that it is highly suitable for a carbon-free energy generation, bearing in mind that the production-consumption cycle is completely free from emissions. As a gas, it can be easily stored and liquefied, increasing its transportability and usage in many aspects of modern technologies, engines and power plants. According to the International Energy Agency, global electricity demand has risen to 4% in 2018 and it continues to rise, hydrogen could decrease dependence on oil, coal and gas suppliers, tackling the critical energy challenges. With hydrogen, we could be breathing new life into the air and other aspects of everyday lives.
How does the energy sector use hydrogen today?
Hydrogen as a fuel has been safely used for over 150 years in a wide range of industrial applications. The first hydrogen fuel cell was conceived in 1839 by a Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove. By putting hydrogen and oxygen into a chemical reaction, he generated water and electricity, which wasn’t enough to power any kind of device. By the idea was born, and over the next few decades, hydrogen fuel cells found their place in various industries, in chemical plants, refineries, industrial manufacturing, and power plants. Although pure hydrogen isn’t generally a part of the power generation today, there are some minor exceptions. In Italy, scientists have constructed a 12 MW hydrogen-powered combined-cycle gas turbine which relies on the hydrogen supply from a petrochemical complex. Further on, a hydrogen-based gas turbine in Japan is used to power a local community providing not only electricity but also heat. In light of global trends, hydrogen is expanding its usage to transportation, creating a new trend of Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV).
Unlike conventional vehicles that run on gasoline or diesel, FCEV combines hydrogen and oxygen powered entirely by electricity. However, unlike other electric vehicles, their range and the process of refueling are similar to conventional cars and trucks. Hydrogen fuel cells become an inexhaustible and environmentally safe product. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, when compared with their gasoline-powered counterparts, hydrogen fuel cell cars and other vehicles can cut CO2 emissions by over 30%. To refuel an FCEV, hydrogen stations are being built, consisting of pressurized hydrogen, which is somewhat similar to refueling a conventional vehicle. And it only takes less than 10 minutes to fully load an FCEV. The filling ranges of an FCEV vary, approximately 200 to 300 miles. Thus, hydrogen-powered fuel cells can be appropriate for trucks and large vehicles with long-distance requirements, comprising also different driving modes used to capture lost energy at stop signs or traffic.
Hydrogen-powered cars are a new trend
While other car companies are developing fast cars fueled by gasoline, Japan market has always been different, they have strived in making cars hydrogen-based rather than with gasoline and diesel fuels. Certainly, some companies have displayed hydrogen car concepts such as Ford and GM in 2006, or rather more recent ones that we have witnessed in 2015 by BMW.
The market for hydrogen fuel cell cars is scarce, but there are some options like the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity Fuel, and the Hyundai NEXO. Recently Toyota has presented their second-generation hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) Toyota Mirai, at an event held in Greensboro, North Carolina's Proximity hotel.
Toyota's main focus was on bringing a rear-wheeled drive premium sedan to feel like a coupe. They achieved that by increasing the range of the car to 312 miles while giving their customers 3 years or 15,000$ worth of free fuel. Mirai also comes with a 10-year warranty and 150.000 miles battery warranty. Interestingly, their warranty will cover the original owner and all subsequent owners.
The 2019 Hyundai Nexo, Hyundai's first hydrogen fuel – cell vehicle comes with the highest degree in vehicle crash safety (IIHS). While Nexo sets standards as a TOP Safety Pick, it also packs other cutting – edge features, for example in a case of a blackout or emergency, Nexo can be used as a generator.
Hydrogen fuelled trains
To reduce CO2, many countries have turned their attention towards making public transportation eco-friendly. One such example is the world's first hydrogen-powered train in Germany. France and Germany have developed a new type of train mode, called Coradia iLint, the train that has a range of 1.000 kilometers on a single tank of hydrogen. Many countries have already recognized the potential of such trains, such as France who plans to put into operation their first hydrogen train by 2022.
These types of trains leave zero emissions, they are generating electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen. Although hydrogen trains remain pricey, their advantage lies in refueling rather than recharging. Downsides are that renewable hydrogen – production systems are very expensive, and for other countries to adopt these types of transportation, those systems should be made available at lower costs. China's tech center Shenzhen is expected to put into operation its first hydrogen fuel cell bus, which will exceed 100km, connecting Shenzhen's urban bus lines. The refueling station will be built near the zone as well.
Many prominent companies have joined hands to promote new energy buses since, by the end of 2017, all of their buses were fully electric. Now they see that the future lies in hydrogen fuel cells and adapting them into public transportation.
NASA is using fuel cells for decades
Humans first landed on the moon fifty years ago. Since then, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has significantly revitalized its space program, including the research on fuel cells used in space shuttles. However, one thing remained the same, the use of hydrogen as the main fuel. During the 1960s, General Electric produced a power system for the Apollo space shuttle based on the fuel cell principle. In the 1970s, hydrogen fuel cells powered the entire shuttle’s electrical system with one more major advantage. The byproduct which was produced during the process was pure, clean water, which the space crew could drink. Over the next few decades, NASA has funded more than 200 research centers, to bring the hydrogen fuel cell technology to the next level. Now, these cells can produce up to 250 W of electricity for a year or two. The missions to the Moon and the planned mission to Mars by 2035 now seem more possible. Hydrogen electrochemical attributes and simplicity made NASA’s scientists believe that the story of living outside Earth and having lunar and planetary bases isn’t just a fairytale. By lightening overall payloads, they can also carry more other equipment like handheld drills used to explore the surface of the planets. Scientists are also working on regenerative hydrogen fuel cells powered by solar electrolyzers. For example, once a shuttle settles down on Mars, solar arrays would power the electrolyzer, separating hydrogen for the fuel cells and producing electricity. The byproducts (water and heat) are then being recycled, improving the continuous production and the usage of energy.
The roadmap for hydrogen still faces many issues
In September, Seoul has officially launched a “hydrogen model city” initiative, with the main aim to produce energy for offices and households relying only on hydrogen fuel. And while other cities are applauding for this move and more and more government initiatives are being supported, some issues need to be addressed. First of all, we are facing with huge technical and economic challenges. Implementing a wide-scale use of hydrogen vehicles and devices is likely to last for decades because the costs of, for example, a hydrogen refueling station go up to several thousand dollars. With proper handling and controls, hydrogen can be safe to use, but it doesn’t change the fact that it ignites more readily than gasoline. With transportation and storage problems, it is also important to implement international rules, standards, and regulations covering the maintenance. Even though it’s considered to be environmentally safe, hydrogen also can be clean only as the technologies used to produce it are environmentally safe. The production needs to rely on other renewable sources such as the wind, sun, and biomass with proper infrastructure.
Hydrogen fuel cells will dramatically change our transportation system, how households and businesses are powered and heated, and clean up the world’s air. It sounds like a dream, right? But it doesn’t have to be. It’s on us, our national and local governments, industry and investors to finally enable hydrogen widespread adoption. So who knows, in the future, we might even see a “hydrogen-powered society” being born.
© 2021 Fatima Memija Bahtic
CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on March 28, 2021:
Quite informative. However allow me to add that you wrote the article from the perspective of utilization of hydrogen.
The real future issue will be how to produce hydrogen and how to convert hydrogen into useable mechanical energy.
We can agree that hydrogen propelled vehicles may hold some future in a carbon free world. But let us have a look of what this really means.
If we go with our current state of mobility from all combustion engine to all electric, we have to face the fact that energy stored in fossile fuels for mobility resembles some 800% of current use of green electricity in an advanced developed country like for example Germany.
You may intervene from an engineering standpoint that the thermodynamic efficiency reduces this needed energy to roughy 35 .. 40% of said 800%, leaving it to some 300% of green energy generation to be needed for the future. It is alread beyond my imagination how this can be achieved within the coming decades. Please remind, it took Germany at least 20 years and a lot of energy market distortion to get to small 50% renewable energy. How to go for another 300% or 6 fold?
Concerning hydrogen useage: The issue is the rate of efficiency in producing hydrogen from electricity and the efficiency in fuel cells. At the end of the day the efficiency is no better than than thermodynamic efficiency in combustion engines or natural gas or coal power stations. So we end up again at 800% additional green energy needed to go green mobile. Any win?
I hop you could follow me so far. My point is: Hydrogen propelled vehicles are interesting studies but are a dead end road for any green mobility initiatives. Cold buring fuel cells are simply way too bad in efficiency if you track and compute the whole energy cycle and not just the utilization part. Sorry to say.
Fatima Memija Bahtic (author) from Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 22, 2021:
Great to hear you like it
Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on March 22, 2021:
A very informative article. Thank you, Fatima, for sharing