Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. In its gas form, it’s invisible and odourless and can be transformed into clean, renewable zero emission energy. Itâ€™s clean, flexible, storable, and safe. It can be stored as a compressed gas or as a liquid and transported by converting it into a carrier element like ammonia or synthetic natural gas. When used as a fuel, it doesnâ€™t produce any carbon emissions.
With so much potential and an abundance of hydrogen at hand, why hasnâ€™t it taken the lead as the clean energy of the future?
Hydrogen doesnâ€™t perform well in certain temperatures and canâ€™t be stored in very hot environments – it doesnâ€™t appear to have the same long-term energy potential as solar, wind or water. Hydrogen is also not an energy in itself, itâ€™s a carrier of energy and can be processed into energy with steam reformation, electrolysis, or gasification. The catch 22 here is that it takes energy to process hydrogen to create more energy. So while it offers potential as a clean energy resource, itâ€™s ultimately still reliant on other sources of energy.Â
The infrastructure and resources required to produce, store and deliver hydrogen havenâ€™t developed and matured to enable cost-efficient production of hydrogen – so despite its abundance in the natural world, itâ€™s still costly to produce, transport, or store. And although hydrogen doesnâ€™t emit carbon, too much hydrogen in the atmosphere could still interfere with the ozone layer – leaving us more at risk from UVA and UVB rays. Itâ€™s these stark disadvantages that have cast a shadow of ambivalence on hydrogenâ€™s usefulness as a clean energy resource.
So how can its potential be harnessed and its disadvantages be brought under control?Â The EU appears determined to find out, with plans to invest a whopping $550 billion into hydrogen production and infrastructure. Some banks are projecting the hydrogen market will be worth trillions by 2050 – the auspicious date for net zero emissions now set by many governments around the world.
But attempts at investing in and harnessing hydrogen en masse have proven futile in the past; itâ€™s inferior as a fuel for vehicles compared to the power offered by electric batteries. Electricity also appears better suited for heating homes and buildings. So with all its drawbacks, where does hydrogen come into the picture?
As a backup. Renewable energy offers a reliable but fluctuating supply. Hereâ€™s where hydrogen could yet save the day: it could be stored underneath power grids and fired up to power homes and vehicles at times when electricity generation from renewables falls short.Â
To truly be free from fossil fuels, the world will need more energy solutions than sun, wind and water can currently provide. It will need alternative options, like hydrogen, to help fill our ravenous demand for energy.
The extent to which hydrogen will be effectively mastered to become one of the major sources of power is a question thatâ€™s likely to be answered in the coming decade as the world continues its quest net zero.