Hydrogen can be used in all energy sectors: power generation, heat, transportation and industrial. Hydrogen fuel cells can have up to 3 times the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies. Hydrogen even had car manufacturers like BMW, Mazda and Honda experimenting with the idea of hydrogen internal combustion; although, that idea is still under development and has slowed down a bit until they figure out how to increase range in light-duty vehicles.
Hydrogen is obtained by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen through the process of electrolysis. By definition, electrolysis is “the chemical decomposition produced by passing an electric current through a liquid or solution containing ions”. From that, we can see that electricity is needed to obtain hydrogen. In a perfect world, the electricity used comes from a solar, wind or other renewable powered source. However, that is not the case. According to Treehugger, 95% of the hydrogen produced in the world is obtained via steam reformation (from natural gas). Natural gas is still much cleaner than other fossil fuels; but still, a by-product of the electrolysis process is carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
That being said, hydrogen is not a fuel. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it is “a clean, flexible energy carrier”. Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to generate electricity. These fuel cells can also be used for a wide range of applications, from putting them on vehicles to homes or even to power a grid. Other applications include use it as a chemical reductant, as a fuel to process heat in the manufacturing sector, and as an energy storage medium for renewables.
In an article from Treehugger where they cite Jenny Hayward, senior research scientist at CSIR, she says that hydrogen production cost has gone down thanks to a dramatically decreased on the price of electricity from solar and wind, as well as electrolyzer technologies. Nonetheless, hydrogen production remains expensive. Other issues that made hydrogen take a back seat in the past are also being addressed, like difficulties in storage and efficiency of the cells.
The increase in hydrogen use in the transportation sector would require that the U.S. production of hydrogen increase 5 to 15 times the current production. The startup, Nikola, is betting on hydrogen and pushing trucks and trailers as it is easier to hold compressed hydrogen gas on big trucks than cars. The company is also planning on building 700 hydrogen stations around the U.S., which represents a step forward regarding the infrastructure problem with any new technology looking to replace gasoline for powering vehicles.
South Korea announced on May 28 that the country is planning to build 18 hydrogen production facilities by 2022. Each facility will produce around 1300 kg of hydrogen per day and the facilities will utilize liquefied natural gas for electrolysis. Currently, South Korea has 35 hydrogen-powered buses in circulation and 14 charging stations.
The best part of using hydrogen in fuel cells is that its exhaust is water, which can be recaptured and reused for electrolysis to generate more hydrogen. But, the challenges of high production costs and durability of the fuel cells are a big drawback, as well as the use of fossil fuels for electrolysis. As long as this situation does not change and there are no new improvements, hydrogen will still be treated with skepticism; especially when traditional power technologies are more cost-competitive. On the side of hydrogen-powered heavy-duty vehicles (like buses and trucks), it looks like with serious investment, the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles and charging stations is not far away.
IHS Markit, Forbes, Consumer Reports, Treehugger, Green Car Reports, Yonhap News Agency
Featured image: StudentEnergy