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What is the Hydrogen Economy?

The Hydrogen Economy seems to suddenly be everywhere on the climate side of things (especially climate Twitter!). Do you, like me, find yourself wondering what it’s all about? If so, join me as I have quick look into the basics.

What does this have to do with climate technology? Lots! The technical and application side of the hydrogen economy gets quite involved and provides plenty of tech-related opportunities, something made quite clear by all the companies currently investing in it.

What is it?

Firstly, what is the hydrogen economy? This 2012 article from The Guardian defines and describes it as follows:

The term “hydrogen economy” refers to the vision of using hydrogen as a low-carbon energy source – replacing, for example, gasoline as a transport fuel or natural gas as a heating fuel. Hydrogen is attractive because whether it is burned to produce heat or reacted with air in a fuel cell to produce electricity, the only byproduct is water.

Part of the move away from fossil fuels to cleaner resources, in an effort to mitigate climate change, involves assessing and implementing hydrogen’s potential use as one solution.

Fuel Cell Technology

One industry heavily investing in it is that of fuel cell technology. The US Department of Energy answers the question of “Why study fuel cells” with the following:

Fuel cells can be used in a wide range of applications, providing power for applications across multiple sectors, including transportation, industrial/commercial/residential buildings, and long-term energy storage for the grid in reversible systems.

As electric vehicles (EVs) become ever more popular, some manufacturers are now trying their hand at hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). While similar to one another in that they they use an electric motor over the traditional internal combustion engine, there is a major difference: EVs require charging of their batteries, while FCVs generate their electricity onboard. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes it as such:

In a fuel cell, hydrogen (H2) gas from the vehicle’s fuel tank combines with oxygen (O2) from the air to generate electricity with only water and heat as byproducts of the process.

A flowchart illustrating the differences between blue and green hydrogen.
Blue vs Green Hydrogen. Source: Woodside

Green vs Blue Hydrogen

Like with everything, there’s more to it than the simple “let’s switch to hydrogen”. While hydrogen can be produced sustainably and is considered a renewable resource, both admirable goals in the climate change battle, there are different types of hydrogen energy.

Green Hydrogen

Green hydrogen, sometimes referred to as “clean hydrogen” is produced via the electrolysis of water, thereby representing great opportunities to harness a sustainable energy resource. It is still considered to be an expensive method at the moment, but as the technology develops, costs should fall, making it a technology with a rosy future.

Blue Hydrogen

Blue hydrogen (along with black, grey and brown) utilises natural gas, which is not a renewable resource and is a source of emissions This route therefore somewhat negates the benefits of switching over to hydrogen. That being said, proponents of it state that it can be combined with carbon capture or offset, thereby making it carbon-neutral, by storing the emissions deep underground.

Who’s getting involved?

An article by Bloomberg, albeit a sponsored one, lists these countries as top of the rankings in terms of their commitments to hydrogen over the following categories: Transport, Energy, Heat, Feedstocks, and Exports.

  • Germany
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • France
  • The Netherlands

The linked article goes into a far bit more detail. so feel free to check it out.

According to the World Economic Forum, with their Accelerating Clean Hydrogen Initiative:

Hydrogen is increasingly identified as a critical success factor for the transition to a net-zero world by 2050. However, clean hydrogen is currently not scaling fast enough to deliver on that promise. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, lower fossil fuel & CO2 prices provide an important additional challenge.

Here’s hoping these challenges can be overcome!

Tech startups in the hydrogen space

As this site’s core focus is on climate tech, especially the startup scene within the field, I’d be crazy to not at least touch on some tech startups in this field. In no particular order, here are a few random ones (sourced via VentureRadar):

Planetary Hydrogen

Canada

“The patented Planetary Hydrogen Ocean Air Capture (OAC) technology uses renewable electricity to produce hydrogen via conventional electrolysis of water. We call our process SeaOH2. Our innovation is that by adding a mineral salt, we force the electrolysis cell to also create an atmosphere-scrubbing compound called mineral hydroxide as a waste product. That hydroxide actively binds with carbon dioxide, producing an “ocean antacid” very similar to baking soda.”

EnerVenue

USA

“EnerVenue is a simple, safe, long-lasting and maintenance-free energy storage proven over decades of use in extreme conditions.”

Universal Hydrogen

USA

“Universal Hydrogen is a the company fueling carbon-free flight. Hydrogen is the only viable and scalable solution for decarbonizing aviation. It is the most weight-efficient energy carrier and aerospace is the most weight-sensitive vertical. The biggest impediment to hydrogen aviation has been lack of infrastructure. Using our modular capsule technology, hydrogen is transported and distributed via the existing global freight network. To spur adoption we’re developing a conversion kit to retrofit existing regional airplanes with a hydrogen-electric powertrain improving both performance and cost.”

Enapter

Germany

“We manufacture AEM Electrolysers for cost-effective onsite green Hydrogen production. Enapter addresses the critical importance of understanding both your system and the environment it operates in. Made of a network of sensors and interfaces, the monitoring and control solution complements our electrolysers. It enables complete control and peace of mind, no matter where in the world you or your system are.”

ZeroAvia

USA

“ZeroAvia enables zero emission air travel at scale, starting with 500 mile short-haul trips, at half of today’s cost. Our novel zero-emission powertrain has 75% lower fuel and maintenance costs, resulting in up to 50% total trip cost reduction. ? It delivers 300–500 mile zero emission missions in a 10–20 seat fixed wing aircraft to utilize existing infrastructure and simplify regulatory issues.”

The future of the hydrogen economy

This is definitely a technology that is growing and evolving quickly, and is certainly one to keep an eye on as we try to shift to a greener, cleaner world. Things are changing so quickly in this space that I dare make no predictions on its future, aside from this:

The hydrogen economy is here to stay and its role in our lives, and the environment, is only going to increase over the coming years. Here’s hoping that it can rise above the challenges presented by both the COVID-19 pandemic and current fossil fuel pricing.


References and Sources:

EPA, n.d. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles. US EPA. [online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/hydrogen-fuel-cell-vehicles

Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, n.d. Fuel cells. Energy.gov. [online] Available at: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/fuel-cells

The Guardian, 2012. What’s the ‘Hydrogen Economy’? The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/oct/11/hydrogen-economy-climate-change [Accessed October 20, 2021

VentureRadar, 2021. Top Hydrogen Start-ups. Top ranked companies founded since 2016 for keyword search: Hydrogen. [online] Available at: https://www.ventureradar.com/startup/Hydrogen

Woodside, 2018. Hydrogen: A future fuel. Woodside. [online] Available at: https://www.woodside.com.au/media-centre/news-stories/story/hydrogen-a-future-fuel

World Economic Forum, 2021. Accelerating Clean Hydrogen Initiative. [online] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/projects/accelerating-clean-hydrogen


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