A sleeper pick may win the race for the next generation of green energy. Hydrogen fuel is not new to the green energy race but has largely fallen under the public radar. With hydrogen being the most abundant substance in the universe and having about 2.8X the amount of energy as gasoline, it has the potential to transform the green energy industry.
However, before you recollect the infamous Hindenburg Airship disaster, we need to take a contemporary look at hydrogen fuel and weigh its pros and cons as a savior of alternative fuels.
Key Facts about Hydrogen
Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe—“estimated to contribute 75% of the mass of the universe.” That means there is plenty of it, unlike the limited supply of crude oil, estimated to last about 53 years based on current world consumption levels, according to Nasdaq.com. Hydrogen is also found in various sources on earth, as it is stored in water (H2O), hydrocarbons (methane, CH4), and other organic matter.
Hydrogen is a cleaner alternative to other natural gas fuels. Methane, for example, produces carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned, making it the leader in greenhouse gasses according to the EPA. Burning hydrogen does not produce these harmful byproducts and, in some uses, such as in a fuel cell, generates only water.
History of Innovative Uses
Hydrogen is not a new fuel source. It was first used as fuel in 1806 by Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz. Rivaz invented an internal combustion engine (ICE) that used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. About forty years later, Welsh physicist William Grove created the first hydrogen fuel cell, which used reverse electrolysis to produce hydrogen energy. These ground-breaking inventions helped to open the potential for hydrogen fuel.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Hydrogen is currently being used as a fuel source in cars, trucks, to heat buildings, and to generate electric power in power plants. Commercially, the international delivery company DHL has a fleet of “H2 panel vans,” which have the capacity to travel about 310 miles without refueling. The question that needs to be answered is, “When is this fuel source going to be able to compete with EV and oil?”
How is Hydrogen Fuel Produced?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, hydrogen is produced as an energy source in a few ways.
- Natural Gas Reforming/Gasification:
This process uses methane and high-temperature steam to produce a chemical reaction that results in hydrogen (3H2), carbon monoxide (CO), and a small amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, the carbon monoxide from this process can be combined with H2O (water) to produce more hydrogen through a process called “water-gas shift reaction.”
Water-gas shift reaction is the cheapest, most efficient, and most common production method and accounts for the majority of U.S. hydrogen production.
This method uses electricity to split the molecules of H2O, producing no greenhouse gas byproducts. However, the cleanliness of this process depends on how the electricity used in this process is generated.
- Biomass-Derived Liquid Reforming:
Similarly to the natural gas reforming method, biomass-derived liquids, such as ethanol and bio-oils, react with high-temperature steam and a catalyst to reform into new compounds where hydrogen molecules are one of the byproducts of this process. The other byproduct is carbon monoxide, which can be reused in the water-gas shift reaction to generate more hydrogen.
- Microbial Biomass Conversion:
This process uses microorganisms to produce hydrogen through the consumption and digestion of organic matter, such as refined sugars and wastewater. This process works in fermentation-based systems, where “microorganisms, such as bacteria, break down organic matter to produce hydrogen.” With an abundance of organic matter, existing research into fermentation technology, and its support of wastewater treatment, this process has lots of potential.
How Does it Compare to Other Alternative Fuel Sources?
The big question is how does hydrogen fuel compare to other alternative fuel sources, such as EV batteries, natural gas, solar, wind, and nuclear energy? However, it isn’t easy to do a simple comparison. The answer depends on many factors: production costs, the environmental impact of production, availability and cost of consumer products, energy storage, political interest, and safety. It may be challenging to give an accurate comparison, but creating a pros and cons list of hydrogen will help assess its viability in the green energy sector.
What are the Benefits of Hydrogen Fuel?
- Low production impact on the environment:
Hydrogen production has the potential for zero emissions if produced by green energy sources and the potential to reuse biomass waste for fuel production. Even some gaseous byproducts of hydrogen production can be reused to generate more hydrogen. Compared to the environmental impact of mining for oil and rare earth metals (used in EV batteries), which can be ecologically devastating, hydrogen fuel production is a clear winner.
Additionally, unlike the greenhouse gas emissions from consumer vehicles, the emissions from a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle or a hydrogen internal combustion engine (ICE) can have nearly zero impacts on the environment.
- Faster recharge and extended range in cars:
According to various sources, hydrogen vehicles can refuel a 142-liter tank in around 5 minutes compared to 30 minutes for a similar EV range. With that, hydrogen vehicles have a higher mileage range than current electric vehicles. Additionally, hydrogen has a 70x greater kilowatt-per-pound than even the best battery. That provides a hydrogen storage tank a far greater range than an EV battery of the same weight. And because hydrogen cars do not have batteries, they are lighter, can accelerate faster, and reach higher top speeds than EV cars.
- Safer than gas vehicles:
Hydrogen tanks used in vehicles are built and tested to be practically riskless. They are engineered with pressure-release valves to help the lighter-than-air hydrogen gas dissipate into the atmosphere rather than gathering on the ground, like highly flammable gasoline vapors. Without flammable gasses pooling around the vehicle, there’s less chance of an explosion.
Furthermore, hydrogen has a higher ignite temperature than gasoline, reducing the risk of explosion in car accidents or gas leaks. So even if there is a gas leak and the gas comes into contact with a spark, there is a lower risk of explosion with hydrogen than gasoline.
What are the Disadvantages of Hydrogen Fuel?
- Limited car fueling stations:
Hydrogen vehicles are not mass-produced, so the demand for fueling stations is low. However, the limited fueling stations may be why there is a reduction in the demand for hydrogen vehicles. This proverbial “chicken or the egg” dilemma must be resolved by an entity willing to risk the capital to invest in a relatively unproven venture.
- Needs green fuel to create green fuel:
Hydrogen can be produced by using the processes mentioned above. However, the most common and efficient of these processes requires an energy source to initiate the chemical reaction of separating the hydrogen from the other elements.
Unless this energy source is also green, hydrogen production will not have zero emissions. The University of Southern California reported that solar energy could be used in electrolysis, but that would divert solar energy from helping to reduce greenhouse emissions elsewhere.
That situation may produce another catch-22 if an efficient green energy source cannot be found to sufficiently and efficiently support hydrogen production without causing negative environmental impacts elsewhere.
- Difficult to store and transport:
One of the main challenges with hydrogen is storage. Hydrogen primarily exists in a gaseous state due to its low boiling point (-253o C) and has very low atmospheric pressure (11x lighter than air). That means it requires specialized tanks to store it as a compressed gas, preferred, or as a liquid or a solid.
Compressed hydrogen gas requires high-pressure storage tanks, which are heavy and expensive. Liquid hydrogen requires energy to cool hydrogen in specialized equipment, making handling this equipment difficult. Solid hydrogen is stored on the surfaces of or within other solids, requiring separation at the destination and does not seem to be a viable state for the general consumer.
Especially for consumer vehicles hydrogen gas is preferred. But the large tanks required to transport and store it certainly pose a challenge, especially when considering smaller cars. Large tanks would reduce the vehicle’s passenger and storage space.
The potential for hydrogen fuel seems promising, with overcoming the physical challenges being only a matter of time. However, one of the significant challenges to its place in the consumer market is its public perception. With the infamous history of the Hindenburg and the hydrogen bomb, hydrogen fuel may need to reform its public image and be understood as a strong contender for the future of green energy.
What are Some Initiatives to Support Hydrogen Fuel Growth?
The U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Fuel Program is conducting research and development into hydrogen fuel production, storage, transportation, and its potentially multitudinous uses. The agency’s R&D also supports establishing safety standards to govern hydrogen fuel production and consumption and education to equip users with the benefits and cautions of hydrogen fuel. Ensuring an accurate perspective of hydrogen fuel is vital for public buy-in of this technology.
In support of this research and development, the Biden-Harris Administration recently released the U.S. National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap, “a comprehensive framework for accelerating the production, processing, delivery, storage, and use of clean hydrogen.” This initiative hopes to achieve “commercial-scale hydrogen deployment” to build a robust clean energy economy, move away from carbon-based fuels, and reduce CO2 emissions by 16% by 2050. However, hydrogen fueled products need to be economical for the average American. A leader in EV cars, Tesla’s goal is to create a more “sustainable energy economy,” which means building an affordable product. If hydrogen-fueled products are not affordable for the average person, their environmental impact will be limited.
According to Forbes, The Inflation Reduction Act provides tax incentives for consumers to purchase green energy vehicles. Although EV vehicles are ahead in the consumer market, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will also receive this tax benefit. This initiative could help to deal with the market catch-22 hydrogen cars seem to be stuck in.
The Final Word on Hydrogen
Hydrogen fuel still has a ways to go before it becomes a common energy fuel in American households. The R&D for hydrogen fuel spans globally, according to the Financial Times, and is trending in the right direction to become a leader in green energy. What needs to happen is there needs to be more public consumption of hydrogen fuel. Cities need to start supplementing their energy needs with hydrogen, and fueling stations need to be built so that hydrogen can become a fixture in the public energy market.
Furthermore, the public needs to be aware of hydrogen fuel’s economic and environmental benefits and realize it is safe. The fastest way to do this may be with hydrogen-fueled vehicles for the average consumer. Tesla has helped to create an attractive public image for EV vehicles, making them sporty and affordable. They also took risks and invested in making the technology convenient for the consumer. Hydrogen-fueled cars need someone to take the jump and build the infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles.
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