Hydrogen needs to go mainstream


Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

It has the potential to fuel the economy while emitting little but clean water, and predictions of an impending “hydrogen revolution” have been swirling for decades. So far, the revolution has been elusive, but that could be about to change.

Hydrogen is on the upswing. China aims to get one million fuel-cell vehicles on its roads by 2029, and by 2023 it will have invested more than $17 billion in hydrogen. Japan is preparing to hold its second Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting, an international forum launched in 2018 to promote the global adoption of hydrogen. The UK has also been eyeing the industry with the creation, in 2018, of a £20 million boost for companies in the hydrogen economy.

In June 2019, ahead of the G20 summit in Osaka, a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) recommended that the world must finally “tap into hydrogen’s potential to play a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future”. The success of other renewable sources – such as photovoltaic and wind – should act as a blueprint to create a global hydrogen industry, the report said. And while challenges remain, the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable sources is expected to decrease by 30 per cent over the next decade.

“For the most part, public perception of hydrogen is a blank sheet of paper”Clare JacksonHydrogen Hub Manager

The world is waking up to hydrogen’s potential as a resource for vehicles, heating, electricity generation, industrial processes and energy storage – but also to the fact hydrogen could do those things with little or no emissions. The need to hit climate goals grows more urgent by the day, which is why Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group partnered with WIRED to bring together twenty industry experts, journalists and academics for a roundtable discussion about taking hydrogen mainstream.

Winning hearts and minds

Much of hydrogen’s future as a mainstream energy source will depend on the public’s support for it. Hydrogen has some work to do on its profile: several surveys and polls indicate a generally low awareness of hydrogen and its potential among the general public.

“For the most part, public perception of hydrogen is a blank sheet of paper,” according to Clare Jackson, who runs the Hydrogen Hub. That fact means the industry is not marred by too many preconceptions – but also poses the challenge of raising awareness so that hydrogen can gain momentum.

Some organizations, such as Hydrogen Hub in the UK, are investing substantially in outreach, providing resources and educational material to young pupils (at GCSE level), or creating local partnerships with companies and professionals that are either part of the hydrogen industry, or simply interested in exploring and championing hydrogen’s potential.

Reaching out and engaging with the public, and especially with younger generations, is imperative at a time when teenagers and millennials are increasingly vocal in expressing their concerns about the environment. Professor Emmanouil Kakaras, SVP Head of Energy Solution and New Products at Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Europe, remarked that as a zero-emission resource, hydrogen has the quality of being “cool” among the environmentally conscious crowd.

But relying only on hydrogen’s “star factor” might fall short of giving the hydrogen industry the boost it needs – explaining to the general public why, for example, using hydrogen to heat their homes makes practical sense in the long run, is as key as underlining its green virtues. More importantly, hydrogen’s opportunities need to be demonstrated concretely, with pilot projects showing that switching to hydrogen is viable.

Making big bets

Pilot schemes are already underway in various corners of the globe. In the Netherlands, Vattenfall’s Magnum H2M is converting a gas-fired turbine plant into a hydrogen plant, in the hope that it could become a role model for the rest of the Netherlands’ hydrogen industry.

In the UK, Alstom and Eversholt Rail have announced a plan to launch a hydrogen-powered train, nicknamed “Breeze”, by 2022. And parliamentarians are working to pass new regulation that will allow for hydrogen to be allowed into the natural gas national grid. One pilot project – called by HyDeploy and run by Keele University – is already blending natural gas with 20 per cent hydrogen to serve buildings and households in the area around the university.

In New Zealand, a pilot project aimed at harnessing geothermal energy for hydrogen production is slated to begin operations in 2020. Marco Baresi, Institutional Affairs & Marketing Director of Turboden and Vice President of the European Geothermal Energy Council (EGEC), explained that closed-loop geothermal – in which the heat coming from the Earth’s subsurface is channeled back underground – has zero emissions, so the hydrogen produced with this system might be effectively carbon-neutral and particularly cost effective. (Open-loop geothermal, where heat is let out, still has relatively low emissions.)

At times, though, British potential for forward-looking, visionary pilots involving hydrogen – and other alternative energy generation technologies – is stifled by the lack of an effective subsidy framework. One attendee remarked that most subsidies typically go to more “established” energy sources.

Letting industry lead

One of hydrogen’s much-praised virtues is that it does not produce carbon emissions. However, although hydrogen itself is zero-emission, many common methods of its production today are not. Most of the hydrogen produced today is so-called “gray hydrogen” – obtained from fossil fuel, and therefore not carbon-neutral. Zero-emission “green hydrogen” – produced from renewable sources through water electrolysis – makes up less than five per cent of global hydrogen production, and it is still considered too costly, as the IEA report reminded.

Nonetheless, hydrogen is often regarded as a game changer for renewables such as solar or wind power, as the excess energy (“curtailed” energy) generated by those sources can be redirected to producing hydrogen, which in this way acts as a “storage medium”. Yet, Sam French, the Syngas New Market Manager at Johnson Matthey, underlined that curtailed energy alone is not sizeable enough to power a green hydrogen shift. That can only happen by deploying renewables dedicated specifically to hydrogen production, as is being trialed in the geothermal project in New Zealand.

“Blue hydrogen”, which complements gray hydrogen production with carbon capture and storage technology – able to capture CO2 emissions before they enter the atmosphere – is a significant step on the road to zero-emission hydrogen, albeit not technically fully “green” hydrogen.

Most attendees agreed that blue hydrogen remains the best bet to take this fuel into the mainstream. “Now we need bulk, which is blue hydrogen. We need to get scale – the green option can kick in later, and enter the market and develop more quickly,” Fumiharu Shimamoto, Europe Chief Regional Officer, Power & Energy Solutions at MHI Group, remarked.

To achieve that, of course, hydrogen will first have to find a home. Right now, there is neither enough demand for hydrogen (gray, blue or green) nor the infrastructure for a fully functional hydrogen-powered economy. Fuel-cell vehicles, heating, and electricity production are all key sectors in which hydrogen could – and hopefully will – make a concrete difference. A far more dependable customer – one able to keep up demand and drive production – might be the heavy industry sector.

Steel mills can use hydrogen to remove oxygen from iron ore; chemical plants use hydrogen to produce ammonia, for instance for fertilizers; refineries and polymer manufacturers also use hydrogen at various stages of production. “The steel industry’s move to hydrogen would be the game changer as for the moment its main product is not steel but CO2,” said Alexander Fleischanderl, Technology Officer Upstream and Head of Environmental Solution Business, Primetals Technologies.

In all, about 80 per cent of the hydrogen produced today finds an application in heavy industry – which could be a powerful driver in the transition towards an accomplished “hydrogen economy”. “[Hydrogen producers] need to secure big consumers, like steel mills,” said Kakaras. “Only then we can build the infrastructure for our hydrogen economy.”

Learn more in MHI Group's e-book Hydrogen: The Next Step in Energy Evolution


Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

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