HYDROGEN, which isn’t freely available in the atmosphere, is a gas that has to be produced. It has actually been around for a long time. Hydrogen gas was first produced artificially in the 16th century. It took several hundred years – the 19th century, to be precise – before the first fuel cells and electrolysers were made.
Today, hydrogen as an energy carrier is on the cusp of finally becoming mainstream, especially with the world becoming more green-conscious. Hydrogen burns without any greenhouse emissions pollutants, which means that it has the potential to de-carbonise electricity generation.
Hydrogen has several advantages over other energy carriers, such as batteries. Compared with batteries, hydrogen can release more energy per unit of mass. Relative to electric battery-powered cars, hydrogen-powered ones can cover much longer distances without refuelling. The refuelling process is also much quicker than recharging a battery.
Currently, almost all of global hydrogen is produced by reforming methane, a process which also results in the production of carbon dioxide. Electrolysis is a process whereby an electrical current is passed through water to separate hydrogen and oxygen. This method produces no carbon emissions, with clean water as the only by-product. Once produced, hydrogen can act as an energy store and a fuel cell allows the process to be reversed so hydrogen can then produce electricity.
Until recently, the price of electrolysers and fuel cells were both too expensive to be commercially feasible. But as with all technology, the price has fallen over time. The price of electrolysers went from between €2 and €4 million per MW a couple of years ago. Today, it costs about half a million euros per MW. Norwegian firm NEL, a leader in electrolysers, has announced a tenfold capacity expansion, with the aim of delivering 360 MW each year. That’s a whopping three times the global electrolyser market in 2017.
There are now several hydrogen-related projects in various countries.
AROUND THE WORLD
In England, London’s Metropolitan Police Service is conducting a trial with 11 Toyota Mirai cars which are fitted with hydrogen fuel cells. Unlike electric vehicles powered by batteries, which require a long time to recharge, hydrogen-powered cars can be refuelled as quickly as petrol-based cars.
Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Jerome told the Sunday Times: “This is enabling us to make great strides towards our ambition of procuring 550 vehicles as zero or ultra-low emission by 2020.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Orkney Islands are planning to launch the world's first ferries that will be powered by hydrogen. The island of Eday is where an experimental energy initiative involving tidal power to create hydrogen is taking place. The project was recently awarded €12 million in funding to develop a hydrogen power system for the ferries that connect the Orkney archipelago. The ferry is expected to launch by 2021.
Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre’s Managing Director Neil Kermode told the Financial Times: “We’re proving that you can take the wind and the waves and the tides around us and use it to propel vessels through the water.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains are being tested on a 100km stretch of track in Lower Saxony. Equipped with fuel cells that produce electricity, the trains emit only water and steam instead of carbon dioxide.
According to train manufacturer Alstom, it plans to deliver 14 more engines by 2021, which is when the trains are expected to go into commercial service. Interest in the new trains has been expressed by other German states as well as other countries such as the UK, Norway, Denmark, France and Canada, the company says.
With hydrogen-powered cars, trains and ferries now all being tested, we’re just a couple of years away from hydrogen-powered transportation becoming a reality. The technology is more or less ready. The next challenge is to make it work commercially.
Hydrogen power will initially be more expensive than conventional power options but that will change drastically as adoption increases. It does look like the era of hydrogen power is dawning upon us.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].