Feature Report: Hydrogen: Future Avenues

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The Many Uses of Hydrogen

Today, hydrogen is almost exclusively used for industrial purposes in chemicals and refining. In the future, it could play a major role as an energy carrier in transportation, the gas industry, and electricity and heat generation. 

Hydrogen is already used to power commercial and utility vehicles that stay within a limited driving range. © AFP PHOTO / FEDOUACH MEHDI

More than 80% of the hydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe. produced today is used to make ammonia, a crucial ingredient in fertilizer, and to remove sulfur from fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... in oil refining. The remainder is used for other chemical processes, for certain glassmaking processes and in the production of plastics and printed circuit boards. Nearly 60 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced each year worldwide, of which 900,000 metric tons in France.

Only one percent is used as an energy carrierA synonym of secondary energy (see definition)., to launch satellites and rockets in the space industry.

Hydrogen is already used to power thousands of lift trucks.

Although industrial uses should continue to dominate the picture for many years, there are numerous outlets for using hydrogen’s energy-carrier capabilities. If they come to fruition, global production of hydrogen would have to increase considerably. Examples include:

Renewable Energy Storage

Solar and wind powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output..., which are taking off worldwide, have the drawback of being intermittent and sometimes producing more electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... than the grid can handle. Using this surplus electricity to produce hydrogen, which could be reconverted into electricity via a fuel cellA device that produces electricity by oxidizing a reducing agent (fuel) in one electrode (the anode) and reducing an oxidizing agent in another..., would be a solution for storing renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... and smoothing production. To give an example, the MYRTE1 platform in Corsica comprises a grid-connected photovoltaic power plant and an electrolyzer that converts electricity into hydrogen during periods of low demand. This energy is re-injected into the grid via a fuel cell during peak consumption periods, notably at night when the solar panels are no longer generating power. Hydrogen therefore serves as a buffer here, improving the grid’s stability. The compact, integrated systems handle decentralized, stand-alone operations, where hydrogen transport is not necessary. Another project known as PUSHY2 is testing the same processes with micro-hydro plants.

Power Generation

A hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity and gives off heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... and water (See Close-Up: “The Different Types of Fuel Cell”).   

Nearly 60 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced each year worldwide

Fuel cells can be adapted for use in equipment of all sizes, and not only electric vehicles (See Close Up: “The Onboard Applications of Hydrogen”).

Examples include:

  • Small nomadic devices, such as mobile phones and computers. A hydrogen bicycle prototype has even been tested.
  • Large vehicles that do not have to travel long distances and for which space is not a problem, such as tractors and utility equipment in captive fleets. Hydrogen is already used on a regular basis to power lift trucks; some 3,000 are in operation in the United States, and retailer Ikea has launched a hydrogen program in France.
  • Stationary installations, including niche stations designed to serve isolated sites such as relay antennas or telecommunication centers, backup generators for IT servers or hospitals, and larger stations for industrial units.

Stationary Fuel Cells

Stationary fuel cells are rapidly gaining popularity as a power source in homes, buildings and stores. Hydrogen is produced directly on site from the municipal natural gas supply by way of a machine connected to the fuel cell which, together, are no larger than a wardrobe. The system supplies electricity as well as heat that can be recovered to heat the premises. Japan leads in this area, with more than 100,000 units installed in 2016. If hydrogen cars become more widespread, one day hydrogen from their tank could be used to power the systems. Germany has initiated programs that follow in Japan’s footsteps.

Such highly localized electricity generation could serve to mitigate failures in the power grid, offering useful protection to countries like Japan, where earthquakes and typhoons are common. The widespread development of stationary solutions could also facilitate industrial-scale manufacture of fuel cells and reduce their production cost, which could help expand their use in the automotive industry.

Power to Gas

Hydrogen can be injected into the natural gas grid in concentrations of 5 to 10% for conventional use in housing or industry. This hydrogen-enhanced natural gas can also be used as a fuel (like Hythane®) for bus fleets. A pilot project known as GRHYD3 is currently under way in Dunkirk, France to study these two uses.

Methanation

Hydrogen can be combined with carbon dioxide to create methane (ch4)The main component of natural gas deposits and oil deposit gas caps. Methane is produced naturally by landfills..., or natural gas. Known as anaerobic fermentation (methanation)Fermentation in the absence of air or free oxygen. , this process could reduce co2See Carbon Dioxid emissions from facilities such as coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... plants, provided that the hydrogen is produced from clean electricity generated using renewables or nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water.... The methane can be transformed into various fuels, including methanolMethanol or methyl alcohol is the simplest alcohol, with a chemical formula of CH3-OH. It is used in the production of methyl tert-butyl ether... and kerosene. However, the price per metric ton of CO2 would have to increase sharply for the process to be economically viable. Combined with water and CO2, hydrogen can also be used to produce alkanes, or saturated preservation (hydrocarbons)The final phase in petroleum system formation, after a deposit has accumulated... that are also known as electrofuels. It’s the future of the future!

 

Sources :

(1) MYRTE project (in French only)

(2) The PUSHY project (in French only)

(3) The GRHYD project (in French only)