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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Cheap Hydrogen Could Soon Become A Reality

Few younger readers will remember how popular hydrogen fuel cells were in the media a couple of decades ago. They came before electric cars. They were supposed to be the cleaner alternative to internal combustion engines. And they never really took off because hydrogen fuel cells were simply too costly to make. But people continued to work with hydrogen because it is the most abundant element in the universe, and its conversion into energy does not as a rule result in harmful by-products.

A recent study by researchers from Kumamoto University found a way to extract hydrogen from ammonia without the release of noxious nitrogen oxides. They added a new compound comprising copper, silicon, and aluminum, which made ammonia combust at lower than usual temperatures, and it eliminated the release of nitrogen oxides. Theoretically, this method could produce energy from hydrogen in a much cheaper way than other existing methods. Until it’s scalable, this breakthrough remains in the potential stage.

Meanwhile in Europe, renewable power is becoming so abundant that it could be used to produce cheap hydrogen without the need for any scientific breakthroughs. Last month Euractiv cited a report from a German analytical firm, Energy Brainpool, that said surplus electricity from solar and wind farms can be used to convert water into hydrogen through hydrolysis. Hydrogen is relatively easy to store and use when needed or fed into the hydrogen fueling station network, which, truth be told, is a very sparse network.

According to Energy Brainpool, using surplus electricity for hydrogen production can become cheaper with time as the efficiency levels of solar and wind installations rise and maintenance costs decline further. In fact, at some point in the future, hydrogen could become cheaper than natural gas, which would naturally have major implications for its adoption. Again, this is only a theory because power-to-gas facilities in some countries in Europe are subject to high feed-in tariffs and grid charges that make them uneconomical in the application outlined by Energy Brainpool. Related: Could Oil Actually Hit $300?

Despite the challenges, work will certainly continue to find ways to use hydrogen as energy source or even as an alternative to batteries. Hydrogen can be used for the storage of energy through hydrolysis—the process that breaks down water into its constituent elements. The hydrogen resulting from this process is then stored in caverns or tanks until the time comes when it needs to be converted back into electricity in gas-powered plants, for instance, or in fuel cells for vehicles. Again, costs are to date proving prohibitive for scaling this application of the gas.

Early 2017 saw the launch of the Hydrogen Council, a group involving several leading automakers as well as Shell and Total, seeking ways to make hydrogen more commercially viable. The council allocated $1.4 billion to the development of energy storage and fuel cell project development until 2020, and has high hopes for the future. Indeed, the latest edition of gasworld that took place last month in Amsterdam had the Hydrogen Council’s Secretary Pierre-Etienne Franc talk about a hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen is tempting because of its abundance and the various ways in which it can be used as a cleaner alternative to oil and gas. Without solving the cost and scalability problems, however, it may never live to see its heyday.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • John Scior on May 02 2018 said:
    I am glad to read this report on Hydrogen. I have thought a great idea to utilize the surplus electrical generating capability of nations with geothermal power such as Iceland would be to convert water to hydrogen, then to transport the hydrogen via gas container ships to areas where electricity and water is needed. As the hydrogen is subsequently combined with oxygen during electrical generation, the wonderful byproduct would be water which could be used in arid regions for potable water or if enough is produced, to irrigate crops and fight desertification. Its nice to know the "Hydrogen Economy" as an idea has not entirely been forgotten. Always a pleasure to read your interesting articles, Irina.
  • snoopyloopy on May 02 2018 said:
    The big issue with hydrogen isn't really producing it, it's storing it. Until they figure out how to not require millions of dollars to build a single station that can serve a couple hundred cars a week at most, hydrogen will continue to be "almost" ready for prime time as EVs take over.
  • Mark on May 03 2018 said:
    We should have been on hydrogen fuels 20 years ago, but the big oil companies have been stopping this,thank God some people are looking into this it is the 8th most common element in the universe why are we just looking into this now
  • Paul T on May 03 2018 said:
    It all sounds good except Hydrogen is highly flammable/explosive. Think of the Hindenburg air ship. It will always be challenging to store safely. Most of the time it will be ok, but I imagine there would be the occasional catastrophe.
  • Ronald C Wagner on May 06 2018 said:
    Natural gas is superabundant and does not require wasting as much energy as it creates. That is what hydrogen requires. Natural gas is a proven fuel that is safe and can run any internal combustion engine. It can even fuel your vehicle on your own property with a small compression pump.
  • Schuyler Hupp on May 15 2018 said:
    Perhaps soneone has already addressed this here, but I’ll mention it just in case: Hydrogen is not an energy source, it’s an energy carrier. It may end up being a useful energy carrier, but aside from safety challenges or the fact that it has a very low energy per unit volume, as to whether it becomes viable in a post fossil fuel economy will depend on the net energy, that is, how much energy is lost in the production process. It may turn out that there are better, perhaps more efficient ways to store energy for transportation, for example, or it may end up making more sense to build out post carbon infrastructure that requires less transportation in general.
  • distant on June 07 2018 said:
    Using hydrogen to power cars, makes as much sense as to have a steam locomotive with electric boiler under contact lines. And declare it as a zero emission steam locomotive.

    Making hydrogen with hydrolysis, is highly ineffecient. Only 50% of electric energy converts into hydrogen energy content. And if you burn it in a power plant, you get only 40% out of hydrogen energy content. So you have 20% efficient storage capacity, not counting storage losses, like pumping and compressing that could reduce overall efficiency to mere 15%.
    Could you imagine, how much is the cost of such type of energy? Like 10x of normal electricity id you add hydrogen infrastructure costs.

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