The UK Government has stated: “More than a third of the country’s power consumption by 2050 could be hydrogen-based and this energy source will be critical to the UK meeting net zero emissions targets.” Hydrogen is one of the most plentiful elements in the universe. It is highly combustible but has no colour, odour, or taste. It a very clean gas and is usually found bound to other elements such as oxygen and water.
To create pure hydrogen, it must go through a process called electrolysis. This technique uses electric current to create a chemical reaction.
For example, water (H2O) is two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen atom when separated using electrolysis.
Fuel cells powered by Hydrogen would only create heat and water as a by-product and could be used to replace combustion engines.
This is not a new technology. The first fuel cell was created in the late 1800 and in the 1960’s General Motors built a fuel cell powered van.
Currently hydrogen it is mainly used to make other things such as fertiliser and petroleum but it’s not being used as a replacement for fuel currently due to it still being easier and cheaper to use fossil fuels.
Hydrogen Blue - Text for Poster
In the UK we currently produce about 700,000 tonnes of grey hydrogen a year. This is currently mostly used for removing sulphur from oil and fertiliser production.
To create “clean” hydrogen we need to look at other options:
Blue Hydrogen – is created by using a process called steam methane reforming.
To do this the methane found in natural gas is heated, with steam, plus a catalyst, to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This can then be used as a fuel.
There has been a lot of scientific debate on the merit of blue hydrogen with recent studies suggesting that compared to natural gas it could be producing 20% more carbon emissions in heat generation.
Blue hydrogen has been heavily promoted by oil and gas companies becoming part of many government policies around the world, but fossil fuels are still used heavily in the manufacturing process making it more of a transitionary solution as we head towards more efficient use of renewables.
Green Hydrogen – is created using renewable energy like wind or solar to power the electrolysis process on a larger scale but still currently expensive. As new technology and funding improves, electrolyser are becoming more powerful and cheaper to build on the scale required for mass use.
Research suggests Green hydrogen will be cheaper than Blue in 2030 and Grey in 2050 with ongoing improvements in new technologies.
Hydrogen Green - Text for Poster
With the UK Government planning over £4 billion investment in hydrogen, we need to be efficient in its use rather than it being promoted as an answer to all energy problems.
There are already specific areas where development of new technologies could make real impact such as:
Swedish Steel plant SSAB has created the first fossil free steel in 2021 and this will become even more viable as new technologies develop to help decarbonize the steel industry.
As fuel cells improve heavy transport such as container ships would only require a 5% drop in cargo if converted to fuel cells. There are currently pilot projects in place testing this on ships and lorries.
Short haul flights with companies such as Air Bus looking to deploy three new designs for aircraft by 2035 that will use hydrogen.
All of this would work to reduce emissions in very specific polluting areas.
To support this the UK will also need to develop new storage facilities and supply networks. Current utility providers would also need to be integrated into this to create Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS) clusters. The UK Government has currently committed £1 billion to develop CCUS in the UK.
The European Commission’s report “A hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe” states it as being “a solution capable of decarbonizing industrial processes and economic sectors where reducing carbon emissions is both urgent and hard to achieve”.
The long-term development of green hydrogen as a clean-burning fuel has huge potential for the UK. To do this efficiently it needs to focus on key sectors such as power generation, iron and steel production and long-distance transport.