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 – and as hydrogen begins to mature, it is 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 ($300,0000) 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 occurred in 2020 in a six-seater plane retrofitted by ZeroAvia.
Producing hydrogen fuel is becoming big business worldwide, with major corporations such as BP investing 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 and steam systems. Although blue hydrogen is widely popular, Cornell University has sounded a note of caution, pointing out that no data has been presented supporting 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 for hydrogen acceleration projects while the EU has declared its intention to invest €470 billion ($512 billion) into hydrogen technology, creating up to one million 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 ($14 billion).
Germany has just announced one of the largest hydrogen transport infrastructure projects 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, Bloom Energy (India), a wholly owned subsidiary of US-based Bloom Energy, is piloting the first hydrogen-based energy storage system. The project utilizes 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. Bloom intends this initial project to provide the basis for large-scale, off-grid hydrogen energy storage and micro grid projects at locations throughout the country as hydrogen begins to mature.
Methods of production of hydrogen fuel are proving to be one of the most rapidly expanding areas of development, seeing numerous new inventions and discoveries. Scientists at Zurich University are now testing a method in which solar kerosene jet fuel is produced out of a mix of sunlight, CO2 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 create 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, heating the air, which is then stored in rocks below ground for later use.
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 liters of hydrogen energy and 330 grams of biochar capable of being turned into fertiliser or used in the manufacture of conductive electrodes.
The potential opportunities offered by hydrogen technology are also expanding into associated sectors. Electrolyser manufacturer CPH2 has developed a sustainable IP-protected membrane-free electrolyser that does 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.
As hydrogen begins to mature, this fuel is clearly here to stay and is set to provide an increasing proportion of the world’s fuel for many years to come.
Angela Youngman is a long established freelance journalist and author based in the UK specialising in business, sustainability, travel, tourism, leisure, food & drink.