Unbelievable but true! Silently but surely hydrogen-powered transportation like airplane, train, truck and car all have emerged into existence and hydrogen-powered ship is also on the way soon
After being subjected to Tesla-style high-decibel marketing of EVs for so long, we have forgotten that other technologies are out there too
But why the buzz with Hydrogen? Why do we need hydrogen-powered transportation? Isn’t the EV revolution already shaping the future of transportation? Isn’t EV green enough that we need not worry about alternative ways of greenifying transportation and other sectors of the economy? Isn’t EV the final word for green transportation? The answer is NO!
Why else would major commercial brands like Toyota, VW, Airbus, Tata Group, Volvo Group, ArcelorMittal, etc. and Governments of all major European countries plus Japan, USA, China, S Korea, Australia, India, Singapore… be pouring billions into Hydrogen-powered transportation, hydrogen applications in industry, hydrogen sourcing and hydrogen research and innovation?
It is because it is recognized that Hydrogen is a key platform through which the world expects to achieve its commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. To achieve Net-Zero GHGs emission by 2050, Hydrogen will play a vital role. And it will not be restricted to transportation. Hydrogen will move into areas of the economy where fossil-fuels have reigned supreme and therefore Hydrogen will command its own HYDROGEN ECONOMY
Towards the Hydrogen Economy
As per Paris Climate Accord the aim is to reach a net-zero GHG emissions economy by 2050. In other words, the aim is to achieve a Zero Emission Society
Hydrogen is a zero-emissions fuel. Therefore, for a zero-emission society it will have an important role to play. Let us examine how. But before that let us be clear that not all Hydrogens are created equal. Hydrogen required for a NZE (Net Zero Emissions) scenario is only the green Hydrogen
Hydrogen is termed green if it is produced with the help of renewable energy sources. In a previous article I explained in detail the colors of the Hydrogen Rainbow. Till recently, high costs of producing green Hydrogen ruled it out as an attractive option. Recently, owing to the main component cost of production — electricity — becoming extremely cheap due to proliferation of solar and wind, green Hydrogen has become and is increasingly becoming the preferred type of Hydrogen.
Below is based on data from The World Counts — Global CO2 Emissions 2018 and depicts total CO2 emissions in Giga tons per year generated by different sectors of the global economy:
Hydrogen will have a role in each of these GHG emitter sectors.
Hydrogen in Industry
Hydrogen is already used in Industry today. Its many uses encompass Fertilizers 55%, Oil refining 25%, Chemicals (Methanol) 10% and balance in Steel-making, etc 10%. However, this Hydrogen is not green Hydrogen, rather it is grey or worse, brown Hydrogen. To get to NZE (Net Zero Emissions) scenario, green Hydrogen will be required.
Hydrogen in Transport
The beauty with Hydrogen is that it can be used both as a fuel directly in internal combustion engines (ICE) as well as in a fuel cell to produce electricity that drives the electric motor (FECV)
Use of Hydrogen as a fuel directly will require modifications to the engine but this is the quickest way to begin using Hydrogen. In a paper published by Stanford University in 2007, author concluded that Hydrogen ICE vehicles had a higher Engine Efficiency (@ 40%) than Gasoline-ICE (30%) and Gasoline-Hybrid (30%) but lower than a Hydrogen FECV (55%). Hydrogen-FECV is not only more energy efficient but would also benefit from a smaller Hydrogen tank than would be required for a Hydrogen ICE for a similar range. With new advances in Hydrogen fuel cell designs, Hydrogen FECV has become a more appropriate technology to aspire to.
Hydrogen-FECV — Advantage of Fuel Cell EV is the powertrains are lighter and time to refuel is very fast compared to EVs and maintenance is lower compared to gasoline vehicles. For comparison, a Toyota Mirai can be fully filled up in 3–5 minutes from empty and provide a range of around 650 kms per tank. The only emissions are pure water at the tailpipe and no GHGs!
Despite its huge environmental advantage, FECVs’ success is slow. This is primarily owing to the missing Hydrogen distribution network. This is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario, where network will not rollout till there is demand and demand will not pick up till there is a network. This deadlock can only be broken willfully by Governments around the world, exactly as they did earlier with Solar and EVs — for instance as subsidies. As demand picks up, volume of production will also scale up bringing green Hydrogen production costs down. Although cost of green Hydrogen is barely competitive to grey Hydrogen today, yet early adopters of green Hydrogen powered commercial buses and truck fleets are keeping their costs low by eliminating cost of Hydrogen transportation and distribution, producing Hydrogen at site.
A May 2021 study from Australia (a Hydrogen powerhouse in the making), commissioned by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, found that use of Hydrogen FECVs is fast approaching cost-competitiveness for use in heavy transportation, buses and remote power. Today, several cities around the world are operating a fleet of buses on Hydrogen FECVs, such as USA (Los Angeles), Canada (Edmonton, Winnipeg, Mississauga), Germany (Mackenheim), India (Delhi), UK (London), Australia (Brisbane), Singapore and China (10 cities).
Hydrogen-powered Aircrafts — Like with cars, so with airplanes, Hydrogen is being considered both as a fuel directly replacing fossil-fuels in the jet engine as well as with a fuel cell to generate electricity to power turbofans / propellers. If used directly, as liquid Hydrogen, it would require alterations such as re-design of the fuselage for Hydrogen storage. Apart from zero-emissions, a major advantage would be significantly reduced fuel weight and no noise. For the same range and performance (ignoring the effect of volume), the hydrogen aircraft would have about one-third of the fuel weight
In October 2020, Airbus launched three ZEROe hybrid-hydrogen aircraft concepts. Each powered by hydrogen combustion through modified gas turbine engines running on liquid hydrogen for combustion with oxygen. In addition, hydrogen fuel cells create electrical power that complements the gas turbine, resulting in a highly efficient hybrid-electric propulsion system.
Hydrogen-powered Ships — In contrast to EVs (cars) ships are not good candidates for battery-power. Since energy density per kg of a lithium-ion battery is low at 150–200 Wh / kg, to power a typical container ship that operates at several hundred kW means a very large number of batteries is required. Adding unnecessary weight reduces a ship’s cargo carrying capacity (or revenue per trip), making battery-powered ships economically unviable
So while for a hobby boat or a passenger ferry, batteries could replace fossil-fuels, for larger ships green Hydrogen is an excellent alternative.
Hydrogen in Electricity
The most exciting area where Hydrogen has a role to play is in power generation. As new Solar and Wind energy capacity is added into the grid, the problems of variability in supplies increases correspondingly. In times of power surplus, it is not easy to dynamically cut back Solar and Wind output, nor is it easy to choke fossil-fuel power plants output, leaving re-dispatch of surplus as the only viable option. This is costly.
An excellent approach at such times is to divert surplus Solar and Wind energy, to operate a water electrolyser to produce Hydrogen — green Hydrogen. This Hydrogen can be stored locally in tanks or converted into green Ammonia. Either way this is usable to re-generate electricity at a later time. This way the power generation sector gets a huge opportunity to decarbonize itself.
So in summary, green Hydrogen based applications abound in all major polluting sectors of the economy — transport, industry and power generation. Together these constitute the Hydrogen Economy, an envisioned future in which hydrogen is used as a fuel and storage and carrier of energy.
In the wake of strong interest from Governments, large corporates and industry, even the financial world has come to the party. The importance of Hydrogen can be gauged from the fact that now there exists a daily bulletin of Hydrogen pricing index published by S&P Platts Hydrogen Assessments for US, Canada, Netherlands and Japan
Hydrogen is a cool fuel. It is light, storable, energy-dense, upon burning produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases, it is abundant and is so versatile as a fuel that it has applications in industry, transportation and power generation. Therefore, in the global quest to achieve a net-zero emission society, Hydrogen clearly has a significant role to play.
According to the Hydrogen Council — “30 countries have Hydrogen Roadmaps, and 228 large-scale hydrogen projects announced across the value chain, with 85% located in Europe, Asia, and Australia. If all projects come to fruition, total investments will reach more than $300 billion in spending through 2030, including $80 billion which can be considered “mature” — meaning that these projects are in the planning stage, have passed a final investment decision (FID), or are under construction, already commissioned, or operational. Governments worldwide have committed more than US $70 billion in public funding”.
As costs for renewable energy — Solar PV and Wind — decline further, electrolysers get smarter and hydrogen production is scaled up, it is estimated that cost of clean green Hydrogen will be the same or even lower than using fossil fuels. Then its application areas will be the real winners and we could truly say the Hydrogen Economy is in full swing.