Hydrogen as the Future of Green Energy

ITM’s fuel cell powered vehicles at a charging station in the UK. Widespread availability of charging stations is a possible future for fuel cells. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Climate Crisis

Miles of burning trees, barren deserts, vast floods, and rising seas. These images of large-scale natural disasters are existentially alarming. Climate change is a constant looming threat of annihilation, but there is hope. Many scientists and world governments are constantly on the hunt for an idea, action plan, or new energy to slow the accumulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere—the main cause of human induced global warming. Harnessing the energy from hydrogen atoms is one option that could shift the focus from CO2 producing refinement plants to a more sustainable alternative. 

Why Hydrogen?

The pressure on the world’s most developed countries to make the dramatic and costly step towards renewables is unrelenting. Wind, solar, and water combined account for only about 13.7% of the US’s yearly power generation. Relatively speaking, 13.7% is small. Energy is the backbone of every developed nation in the world. Trade wars, huge policy overhaul, multi-billion dollar companies supplying millions of jobs, and virtually every single US citizen relies wholly on the massive creation and distribution of energy. So this is clearly an important issue. Figuring out how to successfully make the switch to renewable energy without extensive job loss, economic failure, or completely pursuing the wrong path forward is the only way out of this sandtrap.

Hydrogen energy could possibly have the largest impact and success rate out of all the other renewable energy types. Its efficiency, clean creation of power cells, and incredible abundance all make it a highly attractive candidate for a “green” energy source. Transportation, commercial, industrial, and residential are the targets that every mainstream source of power hits in order to stay economically relevant. Hydroelectric (moving water), nuclear, natural gas and especially oil based fuels already have massive frameworks to keep them alive. The heart of many major US cities is almost always one or a combination of these energy sources. And for hydrogen to work, it will need to get the attention of some willing and energy-hungry cities.  

What Is Hydrogen?

Colossal stars and boundless dust clouds in interstellar space are where hydrogen usually sits. The atom itself makes up over 75% of the mass of the universe, but being the most bountiful on Earth in H2O. This abundance and the atom’s simplicity are the first of a few reasons why hydrogen could become an increasingly viable method of making power. The oldest and most common way to harness hydrogen atoms is from water. In a process called ‘electrolysis,’ water in tanks is split into oxygen and hydrogen, with an electric current running into the water; the product of the electricity and water is pure hydrogen. But this method is extremely expensive, and in order for hydrogen to maintain any level of competition with fossil fuels and lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen’s production cost must be lowered. 

There is a second hydrogen generation method called PEM, or Proton Exchange Membranes. It works by taking water out of the equation and putting what is essentially a piece of conductive plastic in a fuel cell, and powering that cell with hydrogen gas and oxygen, making the process orders of magnitude more efficient than electrolysis. A fuel cell is a method of storing energy: think of them like large batteries. Batteries and fuel cells are different however, in that fuel cells are completely reusable and are not made from the same toxic compounds that are in many common batteries. The reusability of fuel cells is what attracts many of hydrogen’s business opportunities, as reusability could mean far greater efficiency in the long run. 

To get the energy into these fuel cells, a process occurs in which hydrogen passes through a wall (called an electrolyte membrane), and its protons are ripped from its electron to get the other side where it can meet up with a source of oxygen. The hydrogen atoms subtly creep towards the oxygen atoms in an attempt to eventually bond. After this happens, the electrons are left alone, and wanting to get back with the hydrogen atom, they take a different route through a metal rod, producing electricity. 

Infrastructure

Infrastructure is key in getting a foothold in many industries, chief among them being energy.  Energy needs this infrastructure because cities and developing countries need a consistent and effective stream of electricity. The amount of production facilities, roads, office buildings, pipelines, and transportation opportunities all lay the literal foundation for investor interest and long-term viability of companies. If hydrogen energy were to ever become viable and stand a chance against the other colossal energy producers, it first needs better infrastructure. Prior to COVID-19 crashing the global economy into record depths, many oil and gas based companies like Toyota, BP, and Shell were experimenting with hydrogen fuel. The current largest piece of infrastructure surrounding hydrogen production is Shell’s Rhineland oil refinement facility, using hydrogen power as part of the oil refinement process. London’s first ever hydrogen fuel pump for electric cars was introduced in 2017 at a Shell gas station and is a key step in introducing it at a grander scale. A main concern with transporting hydrogen is that it is heavy, and the station in London did not have any large scale production facilities nearby, making transportation far too inefficient to rely upon. Instead, Shell designed a small scale hydrogen production facility at the station itself. This is a possible future for all refueling areas as fuel cells begin to populate cities. Map of hydrogen recharging stations across the world.

Vehicles And Transportation

A large part of carbon emissions come from vehicles and transportation. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for about 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and it is estimated that the average passenger vehicle produces 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Transportation is an industry that cannot simply be transformed overnight, but we have seen dramatic improvements. Tesla has been around for only 17 years, and they have engineered some of the most technologically and environmentally advanced vehicles on the market, but they still have an energy problem. Tesla uses lithium-ion batteries, which, despite being considered generally less toxic than gasoline, are in grossly short supply. Hydrogen fuel cells on the other hand, do not seem to have a limited stock, which makes them great for competing in an industry with a tremendous worldwide output; in 2019, 92 million motor vehicles were made, the vast majority of which were powered by oil derived fuels.  

Paris Climate Agreement

After going through what the product looks like, we now realize that there is still a massive hole at the heart of the renewable industry, but is government intervention to push hydrogen a good idea? In short, not really. The burden to make sure something happens quickly is still on the private sector, but governments can provide the first nudge. According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a US-based non-profit environmental advocacy group, the Paris Climate Agreement is “a landmark environmental accord that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts. The deal aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, while pursuing means to limit the increase to 1.5 degree” (The parties involved were approximately 195 at the time of signing, now at 187 total countries in the United Nations).  This statement by itself seems like a simple one to address, but the Paris Agreement contains many more than just that statement by the NRDC. The Agreement is a document containing 29 separate articles, describing how the UN should complete this goal. The agreement has been relatively unsuccessful thus far, including the official departure of the US from the agreement on November 4 of 2020. The agreement does not mention specific energy types or explicit economic solutions, instead opting to “Recognize” and “Affirm” its articles.  

Safety

Vehicles can be very deadly machines, and when companies are moving incredible volumes of supplies to and from facilities at high rates of speed, the risk factor is an essential consideration. The most important distinction to make between hydrogen and gas safety in vehicles is that gasoline is highly explosive and very uncontrollable. Gasoline can erupt in highly dangerous fire balls, and at relatively low ignition temperatures. Hydrogen is still quite flammable; storing it in a poorly protected area in large amounts, like what occurred in the Hindenburg disaster in which the blimp violently exploded after a spark lit the hydrogen gas on fire, displays just how dangerous hydrogen can be. As a solution to this, Toyota has engineered a hydrogen tank that, when punctured, slowly releases the gas into the atmosphere so that the gas does not exit the container in a dangerous or explosive manner. 

Leading Companies

The leading companies attempting to make hydrogen work are Toyota, ITM, and mostly Shell. Shell has made the largest and most outward strides to a rather unspecified goal of maintaining and/or lowering the global temperature of the Earth. Shell, Toyota, and ITM are some of the greatest polluters on the planet right now. The solution to climate change as it stands may not be for companies to shut down, stop polluting entirely, destroy their plants and push the ‘off’ button, but to make their money in a different, more globally favorable way. 

Conclusion

Climate change is a macabre and ghastly figure, but one possible saviour to its shadow could be hydrogen. Research is still occurring, and hydrogen’s impact on the future power grid is still unknown. This method of making energy will undoubtedly not be only one we use, but it could be the necessary catalyst for rapid change.

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