The time has come to say Hi to Hydrogen..!

The time has come to say Hi to Hydrogen..!

With the growing focus on green mobility, hydrogen is gaining more importance as a green fuel solution. Hydrogen fuel cell technology can be a viable medium instead of lithium-ion battery-powered pure electric vehicles.

Hydrogen has been making headlines as a speculated energy alternative for a few years now. If you have even a slight interest in energy technologies chances are high that you have heard of hydrogen as a potential energy source. Despite being the most abundant and one of the oldest elements on earth hydrogen is still a less known fact. Nevertheless, hydrogen is a fact and it is high time it is taken seriously in the context of the energy infrastructure.

If you are associated with the hydrogen industry you know it -now is a very exciting period in the hydrogen sector. The time has passed when it was merely in debates and part of research assignments. A lot of countries today are already gearing up to adapt their energy infrastructure to incorporate significant dependence on hydrogen, considering it to play a major role in the renewable portfolio.

A little background on hydrogen

Hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table with the symbol H and atomic number 1. It does not freely exist in its pure form but needs to be extracted from water or hydrocarbons. The production of hydrogen can be completely clean or CO2 intensive depending on the path followed. To make clear distinction hydrogen is classified to be green, blue or grey based on the production process followed.

World Energy Council 2019, New hydrogen economy – Hope or hype?

Hydrogen – a versatile and clean energy carrier

On the other hand, the production of energy from hydrogen is a completely clean technology with no carbon emissions involved. Production of energy from hydrogen relies on direct combustion or electrochemical reaction of hydrogen with oxygen-producing nothing but clean water. Hydrogen gas is a very versatile energy carrier – yes, it is not a clean energy source like solar or wind but it is a clean energy ‘carrier’. And that’s what makes it even more interesting.

Hydrogen could play a major role in the decarbonization of not only the electricity sector but also the transport, heating, maritime and aviation sectors. It can be used for long-distance energy transport by transporting hydrogen gas using the existing worldwide gas transport infrastructure, much easier and efficient than transporting electricity. It can be used for seasonal energy storage bridging the gaps in energy mismatch due to solar or wind production.

This all sounds great! Why isn’t hydrogen a major part of our energy infrastructure already, you might ask.

 That’s because of many concerns, some of them being – it is an expensive technology (partly because it is not widely implemented yet) and it is not yet publicly accepted as safe. This is generally the case for every emerging technology which isn’t widely implemented yet.

Being the lightest element, hydrogen has a very low density of 0.0838 kg/m3 (at NTP) which is about 14 times lighter than air. Due to its small molecule size, it is highly diffusive increasing the chances of leaks, it can readily diffuse through solids too. The burning of hydrogen produces a pale blue flame which is invisible in daylight. It is very easily ignited and has a large range of flammability.

Flammability limits for hydrogen and other common fuels, HyResponse

To summarise hydrogen is easily ignitable and its leak detection is not as straightforward as other fuels. It is different from other fuels we are used to, but it is not more or less dangerous than other fuels. It is not toxic at all. A hydrogen explosion would have less severe consequences as compared to a natural gas explosion. Due to its highly buoyant nature, it disperses and escapes fast in case of a leak making the chances of its accumulation in the closed environment less probable.

HydrogenNatural GasPetrol
Buoyancy (Relative to air)14 times (Lighter)2 times (Lighter)3.75 times (Heavier)
Energy (By Weight)2.8 times (More than petrol)~ 1.2 times (More than petrol)43 MJ/kg
Energy (By volume)4 times (Less than petrol)1.5 times (Less than petrol)120 MJ/Gallon
Properties of hydrogen compared to other fuels, US DoE 2008

Every gas has its unique properties and all we need to learn is how to handle this gas safely in our built environment to gain maximum benefits from it. We have gone through this process for natural gas and now it’s time to move to an even cleaner energy carrier i.e. hydrogen. A lot of research is already implemented or ongoing in handling hydrogen safely. This includes classifying material compatible for hydrogen use, making hydrogen detection easy, adding odour to hydrogen, assessing the influence of hydrogen on existing infrastructure like gas pipelines, appliances .etc.

Accelerated implementation of hydrogen

We’ve been talking about hydrogen for a while, now it is time to implement, learn and improve. That’s the attitude you’d see especially in the Netherlands and the European Commission when it comes to hydrogen technology. The Dutch transmission and distribution system operators along with many partners and the government have started exploring the viability of transporting and using hydrogen in homes. By strategizing a hydrogen roadmap, they have established many research questions to be looked into to make hydrogen a reality particularly in the sustainable heating of homes.

Planned steps by the Dutch grid operators for successful incorporation of hydrogen.

Furthermore, to accelerate this transition towards hydrogen, the results from the studies are being regularly updated and shared publicly for the benefit of others.

A worth mentioning example for learning by the implementation is the hydrogen experience centre built jointly by Kiwa and Alliander. This house is a demo in learning how the current natural gas infrastructure in the residential environment can be used or adjusted for use with hydrogen. Hydrogen based boiler is installed next to the commonly used natural gas boiler to demonstrate the changes in piping and design. This demo house also offers courses to technicians to help them get acquainted with the hydrogen application.

It is an accepted fact that hydrogen is an excellent carrier that can help all countries reach their decarbonization targets in time. It is not the only solution but plays an indispensable role in the energy mix when talking of reliability and low emissions. Jules Verne, in 1874 in his science fiction ‘The mysterious island’ wrote “I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable”. Let’s hope that this fictional statement from 147 years ago becomes a reality soon.

Also Read: A panacea to petrol hitting a century: An integrated approach to multi-fuel policy

(Rashi Mor is a renewable energy enthusiast with experience in PEM fuel cells system designing and testing. She is a hydrogen system technical consultant working in the Netherlands.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

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