Hydrogen energy: From hype to reality

M. Rokonuzzaman | Published: November 01, 2019 21:34:42 | Updated: November 05, 2019 21:21:47

Since General Motor's demonstration of hydrogen-powered automobile in 1966, hydrogen has remained as the energy for the future. Instead of revolutionising the auto industry, the first hydrogen car found its place in the museum.  However, over the past fifty years, hydrogen has been riding a hype, waiting for the bubble to burst. In 2009, the then U.S. secretary of energy, told an interviewer that for hydrogen fuel-cell to work, "four miracles" needed to happen, which would be unlikely. Consequentially, the U.S. Department of Energy dramatically cut funding for fuel cells. Resultantly,  universities in the US stopped hiring faculty in an area perceived to be dying, top students fled to other subjects, and programmes at national labs were forced to reconfigure their efforts. But over less than a decade, the scenario has started to change, raising strong hope in favour of hydrogen.

There is no denying that progress must be made in four major areas: (i) production, (ii) storage, (iii) distribution, and (iv) conversion. It begins with the finding of an efficient and low-cost way to produce hydrogen without causing pollution, which must be followed by the development of a safe, high-density method of storing hydrogen, particularly in automobiles. The progress in production and storage must be complemented by the advancement in infrastructure for distributing hydrogen so that fuel-cell (a device that converts chemical potential energy into electrical energy) vehicles would have ample refueling options. Last but not the least, researchers must improve the capacity of fuel-cell systems, making them durable, powerful, and low-cost. Moreover, hydrogen should also outperform battery-based option for energy storage and usages, particularly in automobiles.  

Among all countries, Japan seems to be at the lead in turning the hype of hydrogen into reality. At the request of Japan, the International Energy Agency (IEA) prepared a comprehensive report on the possibility of hydrogen and released it at the gathering of Group of 20 (G20) energy and environment ministers in Karuizawa, northwest of Tokyo, in June 2019. While releasing the report, IEA has called the world to take up the challenge of boosting the use of hydrogen as a potentially emissions-free source of energy. It is being reported that hydrogen is enjoying its latest wave of recognition since the 1970s -- driven by initiatives of governments, renewable energy industry, auto makers, and oil and gas companies.

As far as production is concerned, hydrogen is costly, and its widely used methods cause pollution, producing carbon dioxide. As of today, around 70 million tons of hydrogen are produced yearly. Almost 76 per cent is produced from natural gas and the remaining 23 per cent from coal. As a result, production of hydrogen from fossil fuel is responsible for around 830 million tones of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. And it is also expensive. To make it competitive to natural gas or petroleum, the cost of hydrogen must come down from more than $10 per kg to about $2 per kg. Fortunately, progress is being made in both the two fronts. The intermittence of renewable energy sources appears to be a blessing. With the plummeting cost of solar and wind power, the world is moving towards renewable. The surplus energy produced at the peak could be a source of cheap electrical energy to split water (electrolysis) to produce low-cost hydrogen, without causing any pollution. With the given trend of electrolysis technology progression and the availability of surplus energy from renewable sources, Japan has been targeting to reduce the cost of hydrogen production to one-tenth of its current level.  

For hydrogen to play a meaningful role in clean, flexible energy systems, progress needs to be made to store energy in large quantities for long periods and to move it over very long distances. As such, delivery infrastructure choices and costs are important. It appears that progress is being made on multiple fronts to address this vital issue. The progression of fuel cell for conversion of hydrogen into electricity, making it a better substitute to the internal combustion engine or battery, is a critical issue. Progress both in basic science, patent filing, and commercial offering of fuel cells is being observed. Such progress has been encouraging major auto makers to unveil their plans of a hydrogen version of their popular models. For example, in July 2019, German auto maker BMW reported that it would put a toe-in-the-water by releasing hydrogen-powered X5 in the market in the "early '20s" before a full series production of fuel-cell goes on sale in 2025.

Amid takeoff of battery-powered electric vehicles, the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative of energy, envisages that by 2050, hydrogen may power more than 400 million passenger cars world wide and up to 20 million trucks and 5 million buses. It also expects that the hydrogen technology meeting as high as 18 per cent energy-need by 2050 will produce $2.5 trillion revenue from annual sales from the hydrogen fuel cell, and also create 30 million jobs globally. Although battery is a preferred option to power small electric vehicles like cars, hydrogen fuel cells are already more suitable for heavy-duty transport applications such as trucks, rails, and ships and industrial applications that require both electricity and heat. Despite Tesla CEO Elon Musk's discouraging comment, a 2017 survey of 1,000 global auto executives (reported by CNBC) concluded hydrogen fuel cell technology would ultimately outperform battery-powered electric vehicles.

No technology prospect is free from uncertainty. But Japan's serious commitment to making hydrogen a preferred option to address the climatic issue and turning the hydrogen prospect into a profitable business is worth contemplating. Moreover, the uprising of renewable due to plummeting cost has been a strong complementary development, giving a boost to hydrogen. The unfolding dynamics of hydrogen-potential demand monitoring, analysis, and sharing information on hydrogen energy, so policymakers and industry players are aware of the latest trends and technologies. Governments should develop a strategy, roadmap, and regulatory framework for hydrogen energy development. Piloting hydrogen technologies and business models should also draw attention for scaling up the best outcomes. Moreover, finance for hydrogen energy projects, including production, transportation and distribution infrastructure, as well as market applications, should also get priority. With the given potential, no country should be left behind. For being hydrogen-ready, developing countries should focus on institutional capacities for monitoring progress, analysing trends as well as the development of alternative technologies, and providing guidance on technologies, policies and market design.


M Rokonuzzaman PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation ands policy. zaman.rokon.bd@gmail.com

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