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Hydrogen: the key to decarbonising the planet?

Hydrogen is a clean, versatile fuel that doesn’t produce any greenhouse gas emissions and all it requires to release energy is oxygen. To date, our utilisation of it has been marginal at best, but here’s why it could transform the energy sector in the years to come.

With the aim of preventing an impending climate crisis, could it be that the first element on the periodic table is a vital piece of the puzzle?

You’ve probably (hopefully) heard of hydrogen before. It’s the most abundant element of the universe and has the lowest density of all known gases. Making up the majority of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s found in the sun and most of the stars, and is most abundant in water on Earth.

But enough of the GCSE science lesson. Why is this particular gas so important in the here and now?

Untapped potential

Whilst hydrogen has been mostly limited to the petrochemicals sector – for oil refining, producing ammonia for fertilisers, and the creation of methanol – there is a strong feeling among climate scientists that it could transform our dirty energy sector soon.

The European Commission has gone as far to describe hydrogen as ‘the missing part of the puzzle to a fully decarbonised economy,’ as the world looks to finally phase out (or more accurately ‘phase down’) fossil fuels.

While methane – a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide – is still commonly used to heat homes and industries, its reported that each kilogram of hydrogen contains about 2.4 times as much energy as natural gas. Suffice to say, untapped potential is definitely there.

With such high energy per weight content, hydrogen is already a match made in heaven for rocket fuel and the space aviation industry, though it has yet to really permeate the wider transport sector. Hydrogen batteries are way cheaper to manufacture than lithium ones too.

Finally, the only by-product of generating hydrogen is plain water, which, though probably not drinkable could help businesses to remain water positive.

Generally speaking, if we had enough clean hydrogen we could power our homes, vehicles, and most of our industries without harming the planet at all. So, what exactly is the hold up?


The pesky drawbacks

The largest con of hydrogen right now is that, unlike coal, it isn’t waiting around to be mined from natural reserve banks. In fact, it doesn’t exist on Earth in its pure form at all.

Separating hydrogen from water in itself requires infrastructure, time, and money. Dirty alternatives, unfortunately, are just way more accessible and cheaper.

A lot of the hydrogen we do produce today is labelled either Grey, Blue, or Pink, when we need to generate – you guessed it – Green. With the former iterations created using methane, fossil fuels, and nuclear power, the cleanest form of hydrogen is made by separating the atoms using electrolysis.

This hydrogen makes up just 1% of the overall supply and is more than twice the price of its harmful grey counterpart to produce. What’s particularly sobering is that replacing the 70 million tons of hydrogen made a year would require more electricity than the entire EU.

In a nutshell, we need renewables to become more plentiful and for clean hydrogen prices to fall.

Market growth at COP26

For those of us watching COP26 remotely there wasn’t a ton of talk about clean hydrogen, but reportedly it was a constant theme of the summit’s fringe events.

Paving the way for a large-scale rollout of clean hydrogen, the UAE announced a target to increase the gas’ availability by 25% before 2030. It went under the radar at the time, but the US also partnered with the WEF to build demand for renewable hydrogen to reach ‘hard-to-abate sectors.’

Speaking of hydrogen’s importance as we wean off fossil fuels, the head of EU affairs Constantine Levoyannis went as far to state that there’s ‘no 1.5C world without renewable hydrogen.’

On that front, market research shows that such projects are being scaled up and points to a major growth of hydrogen within the global energy mix. Platts Analytics Hydrogen Production Asset Database predicts up to 20 million metric tons per year of capacity from this point forth.

Again, this won’t be cheap. Climate financing is finally taking hydrogen into account, but building out a supply taking up even 15% of overall energy would require $15 trillion in investment.

Thankfully, as we near the first deadline for the Paris Agreement, policy makers appear a little more willing to put their money where their mouths are.