Hydrogen – the primordial element
Over 13.5 billion years ago, hydrogen and helium were the two light elements formed in the Big Bang along with traces of lithium and beryllium. As the cosmic gases cooled, stars and galaxies formed. All other elements were formed by nuclear reactions during the life and death of stars and supernova explosions. Gamma ray bursts scattered these elements out into expanding space. Our world and our bodies are made from the ashes of long-dead stars. Can the primordial element hydrogen now solve one of our global problems by becoming the fuel of the future for certain applications?
Global warming and human reliance on fossil fuels
The human population is approaching 9 billion. We continue to build bigger cities and increase our use of transport on land, on the oceans and in the air. Our reliance on fossil fuels, producing ever more carbon dioxide, has increased global warming to crisis levels. Successive UN Climate Change Conferences, known as COPs (Conferences of Parties, e.g. COP27), have struggled to find a solution acceptable to both rich and developing nations to wean ourselves off the use of coal and oil.
In my article Green Ships, I reviewed new technology and its use to alleviate the problem for seaborne transport. Since that article, Norway introduced the world’s first fully electric, zero-emission ferry in Stavanger on 22 September 2022. Partly funded by the EU, it can carry 150 passengers using two electrical engines and a 1.5-MWH battery. Is hydrogen the solution for large air and ground transport of people and trade?
Green or blue hydrogen?
What is green hydrogen? Also called renewable hydrogen, green hydrogen is obtained by electrolysis of water. The most crucial thing is that this process is powered entirely by renewable energy, so it generates no polluting emissions. It is the cleanest and most sustainable hydrogen. Learn how it can be produced, what the obstacles are, and what applications it is most suitable for in this report by The Economist.
What is blue hydrogen? Blue hydrogen is an industry term for hydrogen produced from natural gas and supported by carbon capture and storage. The CO2 generated during the manufacturing process is captured and stored permanently underground. However, research has shown that a ‘significant amount’ of the CO2 and methane emissions won’t be caught even in the best-case scenario scale-up of this technology.
While my article on the Port of Rotterdam mentioned a project to capture and store CO2 in empty North Sea oilfields, this is regarded as an interim option for high users of hydrogen but not the best solution for the environment.
Hydrogen distribution in Europe
As part of the EU’s plan, REPowerEU (to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas), Ursula von der Leyen recently hailed an H2MED joint project by Portugal, Spain and France to provide a hydrogen distribution network through the Iberian Peninsula as a ‘game changer’. However, it has come under some criticism. It needs to be complemented by adequately funded projects to supply the renewable energy needed for the electrolysis process.
There is also a plan to build a 5,000-km Baltic Hydrogen Collector pipeline from mainland Finland and Sweden to Germany and then Central Europe by 2030. Offshore wind farms would supply the energy to produce the green hydrogen. Elon Musk is sceptical about the use of hydrogen for storing energy due to the large size of tanks needed to store it in liquid or gaseous form.
Ground applications of green hydrogen
There are clear ground-based applications for green hydrogen in high-energy industries such as steel and cement production. However, I will only consider rail and large road transport in this article. Hydrogen-powered cars are unlikely to compete with electric or hybrid cars in the near future due to the refill infrastructure required and the higher production cost of such cars.
Electric trucks with larger batteries require a more powerful charging infrastructure than currently exists. Hydrogen may be a better fuel if a hydrogen distribution and storage system becomes available. To meet EU targets for trucks to cut CO2 emissions by 15% by 2025 and 30% by 2030, an estimated 270,000 charging points will be required and 60,000 fuel cell trucks will need to be on the road by 2030 – unless there is a trade-off by moving some of today’s goods moved by truck to hydrogen-powered rail.
The world’s first hydrogen train, the Coradia iLint, powered by a fuel cell, started service in North Germany in 2019 on a 79-km stretch of diesel train line with a hydrogen refuelling station at halfway. As it is a non-electrified train line, the rail infrastructure did not need to be changed. However, the refuelling station is a large investment and relies on future supply of green, not blue, hydrogen to give maximum reduction of CO2 emissions.
A recent report on this service and further trials in Austria concluded that the total cost of ownership over a 30-year period is higher for a hydrogen-powered train than for a battery hybrid. But there is still a potential future for hydrogen power on lines that are not already electrified.
The UK has also now, belatedly, started to invest in understanding where hydrogen can contribute to reducing the impact of our transport on global warming. We now have the UK’s first hydrogen train, HydroFLEX. Forgive my cynicism over the government hype in this article. We are playing catch-up with Europe over this, just as we are on the introduction of a high-speed rail network. So far, we have no refuelling station for HydroFLEX or capability to supply it with green hydrogen. Yet the article promises delivery of great gains in the future, provided they can find somebody else to fund it.
Hybrid and fully electric cars are steadily taking the place of fossil fuel engine cars. The larger power requirements of big haulage trucks make the use of hydrogen fuel cells or hydrogen propulsion engines an attractive proposition to reduce CO2 emissions. It has been estimated that over 800,000 hydrogen fuel cell trucks and long-haul goods-carrying commercial vehicles will be sold by 2035.
Heavy-duty diesel trucks are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, so these will be the first to be replaced. Hydrogen fuel cell trucks will predominate until more hydrogen stations are built and hydrogen propulsion engine technology matures. Hydrogen fuel cell trucks are lighter than battery electrical vehicles. They are better suited to carrying heavy cargo over long distances.
Passenger and cargo-carrying aircraft produce far greater carbon emissions than ground transport. Hydrogen has been considered as a sustainable alternative to current jet fuel for many years, either as a combustible fuel or to generate electricity via fuel cells. The need to develop green aircraft is high, as are the challenges. All potential technologies require to be investigated and trialled. This includes changes to airport infrastructure as well as the design of aircraft and power propulsion systems.
The biggest obstacle is not new aircraft designs: it is the expense and time needed to develop the infrastructure to produce, distribute and store green hydrogen. Rolls Royce has developed and tested a green hydrogen combustion engine for a small commercial plane. But aircraft and engine manufacturers are not going to invest in developing the technology for large aircraft unless they have certainty that sufficient green fuel at an affordable price is going to be available. It is anticipated that hydrogen fuel cell technology will be the first step in reducing aircraft carbon emissions. But this is not without problems.
Replacement of gas turbine aircraft engines by hydrogen combustion engines is unlikely to be achieved in a short time. But this video shows why hydrogen planes might be inevitable.
Is hydrogen fuel the only solution to reducing carbon emissions?
Liquid hydrogen has been used as a space rocket fuel, especially for second stage rockets since the Apollo programme. Hydrogen will find a place in our efforts to reduce the carbon emissions we have caused in the rush for our species to dominate the world we live on, with little thought for the consequences. But time is not on our side.
We have got used to faster, longer, cheaper travel around the world. To moving large amounts of ‘stuff’ (trade) long distances to get there ‘just in time’. Do we have to change our habits and do some things more slowly, less often or differently? Now there’s a thought; for another article that includes the word ‘Blimp’ in its title.
I hope I have given you a glimpse of why, despite Greta Thunberg’s well-meant shouts for action, our current social organisation and scientific knowledge are struggling to find a common solution to our man-made problem. The primal instinct of all species is survival, and this is just our latest challenge.
If you want to explore the practical issues of this challenge in greater depth, I highly recommend these YouTube videos: