Op-ed articles

The future of Hydrogen

Photo of Aliette Quint of the Air Liquide Group.
Aliette QuintDirector of Global Regulations and Public Affairs at the Hydrogen Initiative, Air Liquide group

"The enthusiasm surrounding hydrogen is based on its potential to “decarbonize” numerous sectors, starting with transportation."

Hydrogen: A Clean and Efficient Energy Carrier

The arrival of the first hydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe. cars on the market has shone a spotlight on an energy carrierA synonym of secondary energy (see definition). with a broad range of applications, which could radically change not only mobility but also housing, manufacturing, energy markets and even our everyday lives. In this article, Aliette Quint, Director of Global Regulations and Public Affairs at Air Liquide’s Hydrogen Initiative, discusses hydrogen production, storage and use.

In January 2017, in Davos, Switzerland, 13 large multinational companies in the energy, manufacturing and transportation sectors founded the Hydrogen Council with the goal of stepping up the use of hydrogen as a new energy carrier in both the general economy and people’s everyday lives. Fifteen more companies have since joined their cause.

This commitment is a strong indication of the role hydrogen will play in the energy transition and sustainable growth. According to a study1 presented at a COP23 side event, hydrogen could contribute to reducing CO2See Carbon Dioxid emissions by up to 6 metric gigatons by 2050, equal to one‑fifth of the effort needed to limit global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change... to 2°C. With the right regulatory and financial conditions, it could generate a market worth $2,500 billion per year and provide 30 million jobs.

The enthusiasm surrounding hydrogen is based on its potential to “decarbonize” numerous sectors, starting with transportation, where it could provide up to 40% of the necessary reduction in emissions from cars and trucks as well as rail, shipping and aviation. Hydrogen could contribute to low-carbon housing, through stationary fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... cells that produce electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... and heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... , or be injected into the natural gas network. It could also be used to reduce CO2 emissions in industries like chemistry or refining. Hydrogen makes it possible to store electricity from renewable sources and distribute the energy among regions. For this reason, it is without a doubt a clean and efficient energy carrier.

Hydrogen is the most abundant and lightest element found on Earth. However, it is always bonded with another element, such as oxygen to form water (H2O), or carbon to form methane (ch4)The main component of natural gas deposits and oil deposit gas caps. Methane is produced naturally by landfills... .

There are two main production pathways:

  • Steam reforming of natural gas: The methane molecule is split to obtain hydrogen and carbon monoxideCarbon monoxide is a carbon oxide with a chemical formula of CO. It is produced by the partial oxidation of carbon-containing compounds... (CO) or carbon dioxide (CO2) using steam at high temperature. Today, this is the most cost-effective and mature technology. Steam reforming is carried out in large industrial facilities, such as refineries, which use it to remove sulfur from gasoline, as well as chemical industries and steel manufacturers, typically located close to customers. Hydrogen production using biomethane – that is, methane made from biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... – generates zero fossil-fuel CO2 emissions.
  • Electrolysis of water: An electric current, with the assistance of an electrolyte, breaks water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The running cost of large alkaline electrolyzers is currently about three times that required for the reforming process, limiting their use at present. However, this solution offers a number of advantages. It produces hydrogen with zero carbon emissions if electricity from renewable sources is used. It also represents a way of storing this inherently intermittent energy for months on end until it is needed – something batteries cannot do. In addition smaller electrolyzers, some no larger than a shoe box, can be used to produce small amounts of electricity.

There are several storage solutions:

  • In liquid form, cooled to -252.87°C at atmospheric pressure, hydrogen is easy to store and transport in large quantities. The Japanese, who have taken the long view, as well as the Australians and the Norwegians are considering this option of transporting hydrogen between continents. Given that liquid natural gas (liquefied natural gas (lng)LNG is composed almost entirely of methane. Liquefying the gas reduces its initial volume by a factor of around 600... ) carriers are already a reality, liquid hydrogen (LH) carriers may also one day take to the seas.
  • In gaseous form, compressed to 50, 100 or 1,000 bar depending on use, hydrogen is stored in stationary or transportable tanks made of metal or composite materials. Besides manufacturing, the best known use for hydrogen gas is the hydrogen car, which is already on the market in several countries.
  • At lower pressure and in greater volume, hydrogen can be stored in saline aquifers in the same way as methane and CO2.

To allow for new uses of hydrogen on the same scale as in manufacturing, performance must continue to be improved and investments must be made. We are no longer in the early research phase, nor in the realm of science fiction. The technology has already started being deployed, particularly in the form of service stations for mobility.

 

A graduate of ESSEC Business School and IEP Lille, Aliette Quint was a managing director at Arcturus Group, a company specializing in institutional strategy consulting at E.U. level. She later joined France’s Air Liquide, a world leader in natural gas and services for industry and healthcare, where she is the Director of Global Regulations and Public Affairs at the Hydrogen Initiative.

Photo of François Le Naour, program director at CEA.
François Le NaourThe head of the “Hydrogen” Program at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA)

"Hydrogen can be used to produce electricity and heat via a fuel cell."

Hydrogen: A Regional-Level “Bridge” Energy Carrier

HydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe. is a multi-purpose energy carrierA synonym of secondary energy (see definition). that still often faces competition from more efficient and therefore less expensive energy solutions. But as an energy carrier, it lies at the crossroads of all the others, enabling various combinations of production and uses at the local level. In this article, François Le Naour, Program Manager at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), provides his analysis of the hydrogen sector’s future.

To assess the future of hydrogen, it is important to first understand one of its remarkable specific features. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that lies at the crossroads of three other energy carriers that we use on a daily basis, namely electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... , heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... and natural gas. For this reason, it is referred to as a “bridge”.

Hydrogen can be used to produce electricity and heat 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... , making it valuable in the mobility sector, where it can 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... the electric motor of a car. Most major carmakers are working with the technology and the first fuel cell vehicles have been launched on the market. In housing, hydrogen can be converted into electricity and heat using a stationary fuel cell. The Japanese have already installed hundreds of thousands of these boiler-sized units, and are aiming to reach one million in a few years to reduce costs.

Hydrogen also provides a bridge between electricity and gas. It can be produced through the electrolysis of water and then recombined with CO2See Carbon Dioxid to produce synthetic methane (ch4)The main component of natural gas deposits and oil deposit gas caps. Methane is produced naturally by landfills... , an equivalent of natural gas, in a process called “power to gas”. The Germans have worked on this concept to facilitate the transportation of vast quantities of intermittent electricity generated by the Baltic wind turbines in the north of country to industrial consumers in the south. Their power grid does not have enough capacity to accomplish this, and upgrading it would not only be very expensive, but also meet community resistance to the giant pylons. Natural gas, however, can be transported very quickly and in large volumes through pipelines, before being converted back into electricity.

The Emergence of Regions

The benefit of having an energy carrier that forms a bridge between gas, electricity and heat can best be measured at the regional level. Today, the approach to energy issues starts from buildings, and widens to neighborhoods, towns and regions, with each level trying to produce more than it consumes. The aim is not only making a building energy-positive, but a region as well. In the quest for autonomy based on renewable energies, it is necessary to generate power on-site using wind turbines, solar panels or anaerobic fermentation (methanation)Fermentation in the absence of air or free oxygen. plants and, where possible, to become self-sufficient by catering to the wide variety of uses, including home heating and air conditioning, mobility and electrical appliances.

Given the many sources and uses, these energy systems impose a multifaceted approach, whereas people are more accustomed to vertical networks that distribute energy from a central base out to regions. For all of these movements from production sites to areas of use, the hydrogen molecule is an energy carrier that is flexible and better at storage than the electronMatter is made up of atoms. An atom comprises a nucleus made of protons (positively charged particles) and neutrons (neutral charge)... , making it ideal for regional applications. The hydrogen economy will begin at the regional level, and digital modeling will assist local authorities in managing its level of complexity.

Building a Global Market

Hydrogen is emerging as such a useful gas that industrial players are beginning to envision a worldwide hydrogen market, just like the natural gas market. But this one will be carbon-free! In the vast deserts of Chile, Saudi Arabia and Australia, massive solar and wind power projects are starting to take shape that are out of proportion with local needs. The hydrogen produced by electrolysis can be transported in liquefied form and sent out to new consumer markets such as Japan. In France, a roadmap is currently being prepared and there is an industry covering the entire value chain, with many SMEs and growing interest among large companies.

In the coming years, given that hydrogen will fall in price in line with renewable energies and benefit from technological advances and industrial mass-production, it could be used in the right market at the right time, thereby bringing significant economic benefits.

 

François Le Naour is the head of the “Hydrogen” Program at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). Shortly after graduating from the École Centrale de Lyon, he joined the CEA, where he led research teams in the area of materials before moving on to cross-functional project management. As coordinator of several French and European projects, he helps define the hydrogen deployment and R&D strategy for the coming years. He is also the Vice-President of the French Association for Hydrogen and FuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... Cells (AFHYPAC).

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