Many in the green technology industry see hydrogen as the key to a greener and more environmentally friendly future. A future that does not see us giving up driving, flying, or even manufacturing steel. However, in a world that’s heating up, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, can we do enough in the time we have to avert a potential human disaster?
Before the pandemic, Japan asked the International Energy Agency to investigate how hydrogen could become part of the solution. The recommendation was to establish a role for the gas as part of all long-term strategies, which would stimulate demand for green hydrogen. It would also help slowly steer the world away from fossil fuels.
Now post-pandemic, do we see a future with hydrogen as a part of it? Or is it a pipe dream that may have scientists, akin to alchemists of the Middle Ages, chasing their tails?
Current Hydrogen Situation
Hydrogen Europe published a detailed report highlighting over 30 countries that have already started implementing their hydrogen program. The goal for each one of the countries is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, significantly cutting back on emissions in sectors like mobility, heating, cooling, and manufacturing. By integrating renewables, these countries hope to diversify their energy delivery to foster economic growth initially, which would help with slowly transitioning entirely to hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a highly cost-effective, carbon-free energy source with numerous existing industrial applications. But the report indicates that there is no public infrastructure, market regulation, or even a market for green hydrogen. Instead, hydrogen is only used as feedstock to manufacture chemicals like ammonia, chemicals to remove sulphur from oil, and menthol.
So, while we see some hydrogen fuel cell cars on the streets today, the infrastructure to fuel them at massive scale does not exist. However, infrastructure is the least of our troubles, especially when we don’t produce nearly enough low carbon intensity turquoise, blue or green hydrogen to make a complete transition.
Low Carbon Hydrogen Production
The Inside Energy and Environment published a report stating that the EU mainly defines low-carbon hydrogen as one derived from various non-renewable sources but meets the GHG reduction threshold set at 70% compared to its fossil-based counterparts.
At present, much of the hydrogen production is powered by coal and natural gas, despite countries gradually shifting to renewable electricity or energy. In the same research, it was found that Canada and the US have the highest low-carbon hydrogen production capacity.
The report highlights how hydrogen produced by methane or natural gas can effectively decarbonize via modified technologies like carbon capture and storage, methane pyrolysis, or reformation plants.
However, the associated costs and technical hurdles in achieving 100% carbon dioxide (CO2) capture right now make many hydrogen generation approaches less promising than other often longer-term options. The color of hydrogen that the process produces including grey and brown fall far short of the established gold standards where the hydrogen is produced using renewable energy or low carbon hydrogen for pyrolysis process heating. In other words, it’s not enough to have a hydrogen economy, but it also has to be low carbon intensity hydrogen powering it.
Does Green Hydrogen Have A Future?
While the hydrogen industry is in its infancy at the moment, some countries have made bold plans to scale up production of mainly green hydrogen by 2040. Data from GlobalData, suggests that before the Ukraine invasion, countries like Russia and Australia were leading in the way of planned capacity, but now there is uncertainty.
In contrast to the two countries (Australia and Russia), many others are increasing the number of green hydrogen plants; it will not necessarily equate to a significant increase in annual production.
Green Hydrogen is the long term objective. But with renewable power projects and electrical infrastructure capacity growing at their current rates, there is no way that green hydrogen will be available at the scale necessary to offset most of our emissions within the next 20 years. Until that point in time where green hydrogen is widely available, we need a hydrogen bridge where we can get access to low carbon intensity hydrogen at massive scale, when and where it is needed. Turquoise hydrogen from Modern Electron might be the solution to this problem.
The Pursuit of Clean Steel
One hard-to-abate sector is the decarbonizing of the iron and steel industry. The Leadership Group for Industry Transition report COP26 cited that steel manufacturing accounts for up to 10% of global CO2 emissions. Plus, the iron and steel industry is expected to grow tremendously between 2022 and 2050, so there needs to be a decarbonization strategy to curb future emissions since it can end up using up to 20% of our global CO2 budget. That significantly impedes efforts to keep global warming under 1.5°C.
The good news is that according to research by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, around 70% of our global steel production can be switched to hydrogen. Keep in mind that producing a ton requires about 55kg of hydrogen. This means that to decarbonize the industry successfully, we’ll need to pay 72mt of green hydrogen gas annually, and the electrolyzer will need to generate 500GW of electricity.
Now, if we were to use the above data as a benchmark, a quick analysis reveals that even all the currently planned hydrogen plants, when fully operational as scheduled, would fall short of the target. Remember also, that green hydrogen isn’t reserved for the steel industries when there are others like the global energy sector, and fuel cells that may be hungrier for the gas.
Does A Hydrogen Future Exist?
At present, there are more than a handful of challenges associated with the use of hydrogen. One is being able to produce enough in time to decarbonize industries like steel and iron.
Without hydrogen as a heating fuel, to meet increasingly challenging decarbonization standards, these industries will have to cut back on manufacturing significantly. In some cases, up to 90%. Keeping in mind that as most vehicles, utensils, and various other products are manufactured using steel, it may create a seismic shift in the market and politically. So, aggressive approaches for alternative process heating strategies must be implemented.
Fortunately, many countries are accelerating into hydrogen. They see the potential hydrogen has to offer, and it will soon be a shift for many industries; perhaps the vehicle industry and power generation will be some of the firsts.
There is also a critical need for larger renewable power projects and more transmission and distribution infrastructure to get power to produce green hydrogen. At present, we are not developing enough and may not be generating enough for the next decade until the right moves are made to ensure enough supply of this fuel of the future.