Why Has Hydrogen Use Not Gone Mainstream?

Ayodeji S. Adekanbi*

Climate change and many modern day environmental challenges are largely attributed to carbon emissions. Solving these environmental challenges has motivated researchers globally to find more climate-friendly solutions that would not only mitigate the effects of climate change, but also speed up the race towards achieving net-zero emissions. In the past five years, hydrogen has gained traction as a new source of sustainable energy. Scientists have identified green hydrogen as the energy for the future — even in light of its own inherent challenges when compared with other sources of energy.

For instance, other clean technologies such as solar and wind energy have significantly grown and gained acceptance over the years as an alternative for providing zero emission-based electricity. They have grown to be a preferred choice because of their low cost advantage and their usefulness in achieving decarbonization. However, they suffer from intermittency and power density challenges, which make them unsuitable for the aviation industry and other hard-to-decarbonize industries. This makes hydrogen a fit as a more reliable energy fuel helping to preserve surplus energy from wind and solar energy sources.

The four major forms of hydrogen — blue, gray, brown and green — are classified according to their production processes. Blue hydrogen is produced by splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide through a process called steam methane reforming (SMR). In the process, the carbon emitted is prevented from escaping into the atmosphere through the use of carbon capture and sequestration. Gray hydrogen is produced from burning natural gas or petroleum. Brown hydrogen is produced from the burning of coal. However, green hydrogen is the only form of hydrogen without carbon emission being given off in the production process. Green hydrogen, being produced from clean energy sources, is also called renewable hydrogen and involves a process of water splitting (catalysis or electrolysis) into hydrogen and oxygen.

It has been predicted to carry much potential for the power, transport and large vehicle industries (planes and ships).

Before the advent of green hydrogen, gray hydrogen has been useful in eradicating the widespread use of coal and oil. Research has however shown that it is still a major contributor to carbon emissions and therefore climate change. Its production process is comparatively cheap as it is produced using coal or natural gas. Yet the process of its production, known as the steam reforming (SMR), involves a huge amount of methane emission estimated to be 9 to 12 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of hydrogen produced. Its usage is more pronounced in fertilizer plants and oil refineries which are major producers and users of natural gas. The difference between blue and gray hydrogen is the application of carbon capture and sequestration to prevent (capture) the carbon being emitted during the process of blue hydrogen production from getting into the atmosphere.

There have also been some criticisms leveled against green hydrogen. It has been purported that to use a useful end-energy in producing another energy (carrier) does not measure up with rational thinking. This argument may be valid, but thinking about the constraints that come with renewable energy sources — mostly storage and intermittency — one would clearly see reasons why advocating for green hydrogen is a more welcomed idea, especially in European countries. It has become explicit that industries characterized by large energy demands are not able to be powered by renewables alone. For these industries to transition away from conventional energy sources, the possibility that green hydrogen promises is one that is worth actualizing.

Furthermore, long distance travel, especially through airplanes, faces a challenge on decarbonization, due to the high energy demand that planes require for their functioning. For renewable energy sources to meet this level of demand, there will be a need for a battery with huge capacity which will translate into an excessively large and heavy battery for the vehicles. The advantage of green hydrogen is the liquid state in which it can come. This means it can be effectively stored and transported with an added advantage of having lower weight capacity, whilst having a high energy density which has been found to be three times that of the conventional energy sources in usage.

Despite the advancement in technology over the last decade, hydrogen is yet to become a mainstream energy source. In addition to limited infrastructure and regulatory framework within various countries, a major factor limiting the widespread adoption of hydrogen is popular appeal. According to Clara Jackson, Manager at the Hydrogen Hub — a UK based research company, there is very low public awareness of the usefulness that hydrogen promises, which she described as “a blank sheet of paper”. Therefore, one of the hurdles that will need to be climbed in making hydrogen mainstream will be to make it “popular.” This will rest much on the support given to the energy carrier by policy decision makers in various governmental institutions in alignment with the influence that the media can deliver.

However, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), countries have begun to show an increased level of policy support for investments to enable the growth of hydrogen. The body identified over 50 targets and policy incentives directly backing hydrogen fuel usage. These efforts therefore give cause to be optimistic about the global future of hydrogen.

There is a growing attention being paid to the global energy transitions, where despite the technology being at a very early stage, several countries are moving from fossil based and highly polluting fuels used in energy generation and consumption to more cleaner fuels. For instance, A technology group, Wärtsilä, is reportedly testing its thermal balancing engines using pure hydrogen and expects to have an engine and power hydrogene driven energy technology.

As a large oil and gas producing country, Nigeria is slowly beginning to explore Hydrogen as one of its core transition methods. This is also partly because of its ability to combine with other fuels like natural gas, and to use natural gas infrastructure like pipelines. A lot of this move is driven by Oil and Gas firms as is evidenced by new enterprises such as Total New Energies and Shell New Energies who are exploring Hydrogen as a new frontier technology. Whilst the private sector is leading in the shift to cleaner fuels, it is incumbent for the Nigerian government to draw up a roadmap for its energy transition, one that gives a policy and regulatory and investment framework that will build an enabling environment to drive and harvest this technology. The global energy transition is happening quite rapidly, and Nigeria as a country cannot be found to be lagging behind.

Ayodeji S. Adekanbi* is a Junior Research Analyst at Clean Technology Hub.

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