Hydrogen and oxygen are the most abundant elements on planet Earth, so the idea of using hydrogen as fuel is an idea that, ‘a priori’, seems very good, but to obtain hydrogen it must be separated from oxygen in water and for this electrolysis is used, that is, electricity. However, despite the overall accelerating pace in recent years, innovation in the energy system is not occurring quickly and widely enough, nor is it adequately aligned, to address pressing issues and exploit new technologies to improve the lives of citizens around the world. The global energy system faces rising and shifting demands: the urgent challenge of tackling climate change and the need to expand energy access, mirrored by tremendous new opportunities created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which affect all sectors of the economy and society.
The decision about fuel is decisive
In this context, the World Economic Forum’s System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Energy aims to accelerate development of the policies, private-sector actions and public-private collaboration required to achieve a sustainable, affordable, secure and inclusive energy future essential for economic and social development. Partnering to Accelerate Sustainable Energy Innovation is a project initiated within this system initiative, following the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017 in Davos.
From the way we power and heat our homes to the fuel we use in our vehicles, the energy sources on which we depend release harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Given the scale of the decarbonisation challenge, we need to use many technological solutions in tandem. But one element has so far been forgotten: hydrogen. Although is used in present in several places as substitute even more than electricity.
No other options to renewables
Our demand for energy keeps growing. Analysts forecast our energy demand in 2050 will be 30-40% higher than today, even assuming we become much more energy-efficient. Increases on this scale are not unprecedented. Over the past 30 years, worldwide energy demand has more than doubled. What is unprecedented is the transformation needed in how we generate that energy. But this need to be also ecological or “green” because there are many sources but ‘climate change‘ is present when we choose a new source of energy.
Renewables are getting cheaper, and have received more than $2 trillion of investment globally in the past decade. Yet the share of our energy obtained from fossil fuels has hardly budged. Since 1980, renewables have increased from less than 1% of the primary energy mix to just over 1% today. In contrast, fossil fuels have remained at a stubborn 81% of the primary energy mix. We need to scale up existing low-carbon technologies at a much faster rate – otherwise population growth will continue to outpace investment in renewables, and fossil fuels will continue to dominate. We cannot, however, keep asking for more from technologies that have proved successful to-date. We can use for old carbon electricity factories ‘carbon batteries’,this way we recycle them, this don’t do it yet,but I suggest as an option of the short life of the carbon electricity factories, it is a ‘green’ use for carbon batteries, due that now they are not recycled in many places.
So what other options are available to us?
The World Economic Forum’s latest white paper proposes some bold ideas to significantly accelerate sustainable energy innovation and support the uptake of future energy sources. One energy vector mentioned there that is often forgotten is hydrogen. Hydrogen has the potential to decarbonise electricity generation, transport and heat. That’s because when produced by electrolysis – using electricity to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen – hydrogen does not produce any pollutants.
Perhaps the best-known use for hydrogen currently is in transportation. With electric vehicles, drivers are often concerned about their range and the time it takes to recharge. Fuel cell electric vehicles, which run on hydrogen, avoid these concerns, as they have a longer range, a much faster refuelling time and require few behavioural changes.
Hydrogen can also be used to heat our homes. It can be blended with natural gas or burned on its own. The existing gas infrastructure could be used to transport it, which would avoid the grid costs associated with greater electrification of heat. Once produced, hydrogen could also act as both a short and long‐term energy store. Proponents suggest that surplus renewable power – produced, for example, when the wind blows at night – can be harnessed and the hydrogen produced using this electricity can be stored in salt caverns or high-pressure tanks. Earlier this month a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers called for more demonstration sites and a forum in which to discuss hydrogen’s long-term storage potential.
Hydrogen production is complicated and dangerous
Hydrogen clearly has several potential uses, but more research, particularly in production and safety, is needed before we can use it at scale. Currently, almost all of global hydrogen (96%) is produced by reforming methane (CH4), a process which ultimately produces carbon dioxide. To be sustainable, this production method would need to be deployed with carbon capture and storage, which is itself in need of further development. Electrolysis produces no carbon emissions. Yet the amount of hydrogen that can be produced using this method depends on the cost and availability of electricity from renewable sources.
A report by the Royal Society suggests that electrolysis may be better suited for vehicle refuelling and off-grid deployment rather than for large-scale, centralised hydrogen production. Concerns about the safety of using hydrogen also need to be addressed. A report by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory noted two priority safety issues when transporting hydrogen in the grid and combusting it for heat. When hydrogen is combusted, you can’t see the flame, so there needs to be a way of detecting whether it is lit. Hydrogen would be transported and stored at high pressures, so we need to find an odorant that works with hydrogen so that people can detect leaks.