Who’s getting high on hydrogen?

IChemE Chem Envoy Prof. Keith Guy looks at one of the alternatives to fossil fuels and whether the hydrogen economy can ever become a reality

An increasing global population, rising standards of living, and more industrial production mean the amount of energy the world consumes could rise by 50-60 per cent in thenext 25 years.

Today, the biggest forms of energy are fossil fuels - oil, gas, coal. But, that will change for at least two reasons: ‘easy’ oil and gas sources are declining; and emissions of greenhouse gases related to fossil fuels are rising to unacceptable levels given their potential impact on climate change. But, what are the alternatives and can they ever become a reality?

Hydrogen is already providing a growing alternative energy source for transportation in several countries, including the US and Japan. And, in a bold move, Iceland has set itself the challenge of becoming the world’s first hydrogen economy, with hydrogen supporting all its energy needs by 2050. This means the total elimination of fossil fuels and should result in a cut in the country’s greenhouse emissions of up to 50 per cent.

However, one could argue that Iceland’s natural energy resources, its waterfalls and hot springs, give it an unnatural advantage over less well-endowed countries. So, what progress can other countries hope to achieve and what do they need to make the hydrogen economy a reality?

Let’s start with a look at what progress the world is currently making towards the hydrogen economy.

Tiny leaps forward

The most obvious step that we are beginning to see is the introduction and take-up of fuel-cell-powered vehicles. These hydrogen-powered vehicles offer immediate benefits - they are about twice as efficient as current fossil fuel-based vehicles and can significantly reduce air pollution in cities and reduce carbon emissions, even if the hydrogen is made from natural gas. Even with current hydrogen prices the cost of fuel per mile is actually better than gasoline engines.

And, since 2000 when the first hydrogen filling station was set up in Dearborn, North America, we’re also beginning to see growing numbers of filling stations opening up to meet the increased demand, most notably in the US, Japan, Germany and Iceland.

In Iceland, many public buses are already converted to use hydrogen and are refuelled by a filling station on the outskirts of its capital, Reykjavik. In addition, there are plans afoot to convert the country’s entire fishing fleet over to hydrogen use. A small number of hydrogen powered buses are also running in most western European capital cities.

Small steps back

Unfortunately, whilst moves towards an increased use of hydrogen are starting to gather speed, as things stand this growth is restricted by a number of constraints at a political, commercial, technical and social level.

The public perception of the dangers around the transportation and distribution of hydrogen need to be addressed if we’re to see widespread use in the future. The memory of the Hindenburg is still engraved on the public conscience (see page 17).

At a practical level, there are real issues in terms of how we store and transport and use hydrogen safely and economically.

Hydrogen is a very light gas making it far more difficult to work with than the gasoline we’re used to. However, hydrogen’s big advantage as an energy carrier over renewable electricity is that it can already be stored more efficiently. The biggest current challenge is therefore to increase storage efficiency to maximise this advantage.

New technical demands will also be made on the quality of the components throughout delivery systems. Hydrogen leaks more easily than any other gas and valves and fittings have been developed to overcome this problem for industrial use. The challenges for the valve manufacturer, when valves are operated in a public environment are significant. Valves for hydrogen service will have to be reliable, intrinsically safe and ‘idiot proof’.

From an economic point of view, the costs of switching over to hydrogen-based technologies are high. In the US for example, the investment required to convert existing gasoline stations to provide hydrogen to vehicle drivers will run into billions of dollars. Also, whilst fuel cells are getting cheaper they are still far more expensive than conventional engines.

And, the cost of producing the hydrogen itself from renewable resources is high, although the good news is that economies of scale do exist. As the supply increases so the filling costs will start to come down. It is expected that the same will apply to the associated costs of storage, transport and vehicles.

What we’ll also need to see is a move from natural gas-based hydrogen, which is being used during the market development phase, to industrial-level hydrogen production using renewable resources on an economic basis. This will require further developments, both in the public and private sector, if we’re to see any significant progress.

At a political level, there’s a real need for a common worldwide approach to the adoption of hydrogen if we are to succeed along the path towards the hydrogen economy. For example, if a hydrogen powered truck, say, from Spain cannot refuel in France and is banned from the channel tunnel and the ferries, there will be little point in owning one.

Must work harder

So, the hydrogen economy is developing but more must be done if we’re to see real progress in the medium to long term. The public and private sectors must work together, with government agencies providing the environment for research and development whilst industry focuses on the commercialisation of technology. Only then will the hydrogen economy cease to be theory and become a reality

Published in Valve User Magazine Issue 5

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