23.04.20 Will hydrogen’s future arrive? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 7 min.

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Summary

The oft-repeated joke about hydrogen is that it’s the fuel of the future—and always will be. The idea of hydrogen-powered cars has been around for decades. Yet only tiny numbers of them are in use. Thanks to technological advances and the increasing urgency of climate protection, however, hydrogen’s time may slowly be arriving.

At the start of 2019, just 392 hydrogen-powered cars were registered in Germany. France has about 350 H2 cars of various types, Norway and Great Britain a little less than 150. Other EU countries have even fewer. Obviously, hydrogen isn’t currently playing a big role in the decarbonization of Europe's transport sector and doesn’t look as if it will do so in the foreseeable future either. Although countries like the United States (roughly 6,000 H2 vehicles) and Japan (roughly 3,000) are somewhat further ahead, this technology still accounts for only a fraction of their registered vehicles. 

The reasons vary. Certainly two of the most important are the small number of fueling stations and the relatively high cost of H2 cars. For the time being, hydrogen’s future is brighter in air, maritime, and heavy-road transport as well as long-distance passenger vehicles, but only if the necessary energy policies are put in place. In these applications, hydrogen can either be converted directly into electrical energy in fuel cells or combined with sequestered carbon dioxide to produce synthetic fuels (see below). 

Wasserstoffauto

Nevertheless, Europe already consumes a lot of hydrogen, just not as fuel. Germany alone uses 57 terawatt-hours (TWh) of hydrogen annually in its chemical industry (especially for the production of methanol, an important component of plastics) as well as in refineries and fertilizer production. New applications could increase this figure to 334 TWh by 2030. 

Three colors: grey, blue, and green 

An electric vehicle is only as climate-friendly as the electricity that charges its battery. Similarly, hydrogen is only as clean as its production method. The most common method—natural gas reforming—isn’t very. It involves using energy- and carbon-intensive thermal processes to break down methane (CH4) into hydrogen (H2). It is, however, relatively cheap, which is why about nearly all of the world’s hydrogen is currently grey. 

Blue hydrogen is grey hydrogen with a difference: the carbon dioxide emitted during its production is captured and stored, ideally to be subsequently used to make synthetic fuels. This makes the carbon footprint of blue hydrogen about 80 percent smaller than that of grey. The problem is that carbon storage, which has been considered as a way to reduce the climate impact of coal-fired power generation, is controversial. Many people consider the risk of captured carbon dioxide ultimately leaking into the atmosphere too great. 

Green hydrogen isn’t produced from CH4 but rather from H20: water. As long as renewable electricity is used to power this process, known as electrolysis, green hydrogen is 100 percent climate-neutral. Electrolysis, however, is currently much more expensive than natural gas reforming. This is why, as the International Energy Agency reports, just 0.1 percent of the world’s hydrogen is green. 

This percentage will increase going forward, and, thanks to technological breakthroughs, perhaps at a faster rate than some currently anticipate. For example, a paper published in Energy Naturein early March 2020 reports on a new water electrolysis process that uses nickel-iron as a catalyst instead of precious metals. This innovation, developed by a team of researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Washington State University, could make electrolysis—and thus green hydrogen—much more economic. 

Hydrogen’s future 

In the decades ahead, Europe‘s hydrogen must become 100 percent green. The question is how to get there without placing an unnecessary burden on the economy. One important prerequisite is a change in energy policy. Companies currently lack real incentives to embrace green hydrogen. Yet it would be easy to use levies to reduce production costs and to create economic incentives for hydrogen users to go green.  

It may also make sense to reduce the use of climate-surly grey hydrogen by converting to more climate-friendly transitional processes. One particularly promising method with a new color descriptor—turquoise hydrogen—involves heating natural gas until it breaks down into hydrogen and carbon. The waste product, which is closely related to hard coal, can be used in the manufacture of tires, batteries, and other products. In short, both turquoise hydrogen and its by-product generate revenue, which makes this hue of hydrogen an interesting business proposition.  

Today, the process is still in its infancy. Depending on when and how much Europe invests in this new technology, it will take several years before production can be scaled up. Depending on the region, green, blue, and turquoise hydrogen are all viable options. It’s now up to policymakers to weigh the economic and environmental costs and benefits and then make decisions that can lead Europe’s hydrogen economy into a successful future. 

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