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Why All the Hype about Hydrogen?

January 16, 2024


Anyone who follows U.S. politics knows there is a wide divide between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to green energy. Some of these differences can be explained by the fact that many Republican politicians come from states rich with fossil fuels. Nevertheless, journalist Phred Dvorak reports, “One clean-energy candidate has broad support from some of the reddest parts of the U.S.: hydrogen.”[1] Dvorak goes on to explain:


In a polarized energy debate that often pits renewables and their Democratic backers against fossil fuels and Republican interests, hydrogen is emerging as a big-tent fuel. Hydrogen doesn’t produce carbon emissions when burned, and companies are looking at it for use in cars, power generation and steel manufacturing. One feature is that it can be produced using either renewables or fossil fuels. Many environmentalists warn that the flexibility could end up hurting the climate by prolonging the use of oil and gas. But it is also a reason for hydrogen’s bipartisan appeal.”


And it’s not just in the U.S. that support for hydrogen energy is growing. You can find hydrogen supporters in many places around the world. Journalist Vijay Vaitheeswaran reports, “Enthusiasts are bubbling with excitement as a swirl of geopolitical and energy trends has put the spotlight once again on hydrogen, a clean fuel that can be made from a variety of primary energy sources.”[2] He cautions, however, “Hydrogen has seen previous false dawns. Two decades ago European and Japanese carmakers wasted billions chasing the dream of fuel-cell passenger cars. But governments and investors are betting that this time will be different.”


Hydrogen’s Bipartisan Support


Tim Lindsey, President and CEO of Highlander Innovation Inc., notes, “Wind, solar, and lithium ion each have their own shortcomings and are not enough to meet the demands of the future. … Until better options are found to address the energy supply and demand fluctuations associated with renewable energy, more widespread adoption will likely struggle.”[3] One such option, he believes, is hydrogen. He explains, “Hydrogen has the potential to play a vital role in meeting the energy storage needs required to slash CO2 emissions. It is the most plentiful element in the universe and its capability as an effective energy carrier has been well-understood for decades.” Like Vaitheeswaran, Lindsey notes that previous efforts to promote hydrogen fell short. He writes, “Significant planning and investment took place in the early 2000s, but hydrogen technologies failed to deliver satisfactory performance and financial returns. However, technology developers have continued to work to address shortfalls and considerable progress has been made. Technologies that produce, store, transport and utilize hydrogen have now advanced to a point where hydrogen is emerging as a feasible option for applications in grid storage, transportation, metals refining, and heat for buildings and industrial applications.”


Vaitheeswaran adds, “Environmentalists love that ‘green’ hydrogen can be made with renewable energy in electrolyzers — devices that use electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. This has sparked a global rush to manufacture them, with around 600 proposed projects, about half of them in Europe. But Big Oil is keen on hydrogen too, because ‘blue’ hydrogen can be made in a cleanish way from natural gas, if methane leaks are minimized and resulting carbon emissions are captured and sequestered.” Dvorak notes that this mix of green and blue hydrogen production is behind the bipartisanship support for advancing hydrogen production in the Unites States. He writes, “Both Republicans and Democrats like that no country has yet seized the lead in hydrogen, in contrast with clean technologies such as solar or batteries, which China dominates. That means the U.S. has a good chance to move ahead of others, says Heather Reams, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a Republican-leaning advocacy group for energy and environmental policy.”


Benefits and Drawbacks of a Hydrogen Economy


Most environmentalists promote the benefits of green hydrogen. As journalist Adele Peters explains, “Burning hydrogen doesn’t emit CO2. If it’s made with renewable electricity — so-called green hydrogen — producing it also doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.”[4] What is emitted is water vapor. The benefits to the environment from burning hydrogen are thus very obvious. Cities whose air quality threatens the health of residents would greatly benefit from a clean-burning fuel. As noted above, the cleanest way to produce hydrogen is to use electricity (i.e., electrolysis) to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. This process requires electricity, a catalyst, and water. If the electricity is generated by solar, wind, or nuclear power, all the better for the environment. Catalysts are another story. Physicist Evrim Yazgin reports, “Not all catalysts are created equal. Catalysts used in electrolysis tend to be rare precious metals like iridium, ruthenium, and platinum. Typical non-precious catalysts are transition metal oxide catalysts, for example cobalt oxide coated with chromium oxide.”[5] Even if you use cheap catalysts, that still leaves the challenge of finding water to be converted into oxygen and hydrogen.


Yazgin reports a research group in Australia may have solved both the catalyst and the water challenge. He explains, “Splitting seawater to produce hydrogen may be a scientific miracle that puts us on a path to replacing fossil fuels with the environmentally-friendly alternative. … The new breakthrough in splitting seawater to produce green energy was achieved by adding a layer of Lewis acid (a specific type of acid, for example chromium(III) oxide, Cr2O3) on top of the transition metal oxide catalyst. While using cheaper materials, the process is shown to be very effective.” How effective? Project leader Professor Shi-Zhang Qiao from the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering, told Yazgin, “We have split natural seawater into oxygen and hydrogen with nearly 100 percent efficiency, to produce green hydrogen by electrolysis, using a non-precious and cheap catalyst in a commercial electrolyzer.”


Although hydrogen may sound like a silver bullet solution to the world’s future energy challenges, there are significant drawbacks. Peters explains replacing existing infrastructure, including home appliances, to run on hydrogen would be expensive and dangerous. She writes, “In existing infrastructure, it’s possible to use only a small amount of hydrogen in a blend before the safety risks become too great. Because it’s not feasible to switch to 100% hydrogen as a replacement for gas — and because hydrogen is inefficient — the total reduction in emissions will be fairly minimal. … It also would be prohibitively expensive to replace the hundreds of thousands of miles of existing gas pipelines and more than 2 million miles of distribution lines. Most gas mains and service lines are made from plastic; because hydrogen is a small molecule and requires higher pressure to move than natural gas, it can leak through pipeline walls or fittings more easily. In longer transmission lines made from steel, hydrogen can make the metal more brittle and likely to crack. While gas uses an odorant to help give people the ability to smell gas leaks, it’s not physically possible to add an odorant to hydrogen. Meanwhile, hydrogen is 14 times as flammable as gas; a fire can be sparked by static electricity. And even though hydrogen doesn’t emit CO2 when it’s used, if it were to leak from a pipeline it would cause reactions in the atmosphere that add to global warming.”


Concluding Thoughts


Clearly, a hydrogen economy remains some distance in the future. Nevertheless, there are areas where using hydrogen energy makes a lot of sense for both industry and the environment. In those areas, hydrogen should be pursued with vigor. And, according to Vaitheeswaran, America is in a great position to lead the charge. He concludes, “The biggest force pushing hydrogen forward … will be a tidal wave of government money in America. The Inflation Reduction Act, which is really a climate-change law, offers a staggering $3/kg in subsidy for green-hydrogen projects. Unlike Europe’s thicket of rules, America’s hydrogen policy is clear and extremely compelling, experts say. Many green-hydrogen projects, currently unable to compete against dirtier forms of hydrogen (which typically cost around $2/kg), will suddenly enjoy costs below $1/kg. In sun-kissed or wind-swept areas, some may even see negative costs.” Greg Gosnell, President and CEO of GenH2, notes, “While the hydrogen economy promises to be a major component of the world’s green energy future, there are several important benchmarks to achieve before the promise of hydrogen’s contribution to net zero carbon emissions and clean air can be realized. First and foremost, a supply of hydrogen must be accessible and available. This requires a dependable supply of ultra-pure liquid hydrogen. Second, we need to be able to deploy safe, low-pressure storage of liquid hydrogen.”[6] In other words, the hydrogen supply chain is going to play an important role in planet’s future.


[1] Phred Dvorak, “The Green Fuel That Even Red America Loves,” The Wall Street Journal, 5 November 2023.
[2] Vijay Vaitheeswaran, “Hydrogen hype is rising again—will this time be different?” The Economist, 14 November 2022.
[3] Tim Lindsey, “Why Hydrogen May Be Renewable Energy’s Best Bet,” IndustryWeek, 11 May 2021.
[4] Adele Peters, “The problem with green hydrogen,’ Fast Company, 3 May 2023.
[5] Evrim Yazgin, “Green hydrogen produced with near 100% efficiency using seawater,” Cosmos, 31 January 2023.
[6] Greg Gosnell, “Hydrogen Is Here; This is How We Get It There,” SupplyChainBrain, 6 April 2023.

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