Is hydrogen fuel viable in a renewable world?
We find ourselves in a global transition period that has long since been a major necessity for the natural world. The reliance on fossil fuels, while still apparent, is beginning to decline as the development and production of alternative fuels continues to increase. Technological advancements and years of research are allowing for positive change, as we aim to find suitable solutions to the global fossil fuel problem.
Years ago, sustainable fuels and alternative energy sources were rarely thought of as being realistic replacements for oil and gas. However, this is no longer the case and as the use of fossil fuels continues to have detrimental effects on the environment and planet as a whole, sustainable energy sources are becoming increasingly available for use on a global scale. Nuclear, wind, and solar power are the front runners in the race to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and global temperatures in order to reach net zero.
Hydrogen fuel is a clean alternative to fossil fuels such as petroleum and diesel which is being developed for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Hydrogen fuel cells do not emit any greenhouse gases, only water, and the hydrogen itself can be produced using sustainable energy sources such as nuclear power, renewables and even biomass. Due to these qualities, hydrogen fuel unsurprisingly became an exciting prospect in the search for cleaner energy, but is it viable?
As previously mentioned, hydrogen fuel cells produce water vapour when used, rather than any harmful greenhouse gases. Therefore the widespread use of hydrogen fuel (alongside other renewables) would begin to reduce the negative impacts on the environment caused by fossil fuels, from global warming and rising sea levels to oil spills and ocean acidification. Furthermore, it can be produced using renewable energy and the recent production (more on this later) of hydrogen fuel doesn’t require fossil fuels to be produced. As the number of FCEVs increases on the road, the average carbon footprint will start to decline.
FCEVs produce electricity using a fuel cell powered by hydrogen and are more efficient than conventional combustion engine vehicles. This efficiency is another major advantage of hydrogen fuel, with a fuel economy equivalent to about twice that of petrol vehicles. This theoretically means that around half the amount of hydrogen will be required for the same number of petrol vehicles. Of course, it wouldn’t be exactly half but it is safe to assume the volume of hydrogen being used would be less than that of petroleum and diesel. In addition to being efficient, FCEVs also charge much faster than standard battery-powered vehicles. Compared to fully electric vehicles, which can take up to several hours to charge, hydrogen fuel cells can be filled in less than five minutes.
As well as no air pollution, FCEVs produce no noise pollution. Hydrogen fuel cells produce little to no noise when functioning. Combustion engines in comparison, are loud and the cars using them can be to blame for high levels of noise pollution, especially in busy areas like cities or major motorways. Noise pollution can have detrimental effects on both human health and the environment in sustained large doses. It can increase stress and anxiety in people, as well as affect wildlife migration and breeding. Hydrogen fuel can therefore help reduce noise pollution on a large scale.
Finally, hydrogen fuel appears to be versatile, as technologies advance and engineers discover new ways for its use. Here we have focused on hydrogen being used in fuel cells within FCEVs, however the use of hydrogen is finding its way into other industries. For example, hydrogen is currently being tested by Reaction Engines in their SABRE rocket engines as a preburner, where they have found positive results in their testing. As well as aircraft and spacecraft, it’s thought to be possible that hydrogen could be used in small domestic appliances and heating systems.
While there are a vast number of positives for hydrogen and hydrogen fuel, it’s not entirely straightforward. The first big disadvantage of hydrogen is the cost of production and transportation. Green hydrogen is when it is produced using renewable sources, rather than fossil fuels, and it is hoped that it will become a powerful alternative that can help with decarbonisation. However, large scale production of green hydrogen is challenging due to the costs of power and electrolyser production. The more commonly produced hydrogen is dubbed grey hydrogen. This grey hydrogen is produced using natural gas and doesn’t capture the greenhouse gas emissions made in the process. Because of this, the environmental benefit of hydrogen fuel becomes diminished as its initial production is harmful. There is a shift to reduce grey hydrogen production and move to a more sustainable method.
The expense continues when moving onto the actual transportation of hydrogen. The infrastructure for transporting hydrogen is still in early stages, and the hazardous implications of stored hydrogen are further affecting the efficiency of its transportation. It’s worth mentioning firstly that hydrogen does rapidly dissipate if a leak were to occur and it isn’t toxic, however that’s as far as the benefits for transportation go. Unfortunately, hydrogen has dangerous properties, with it being highly flammable, and explosive in certain conditions. Because of this, the transportation of hydrogen needs to be done using expensive, additional controls in order to keep it safe. Furthermore, in case of an accident or collision, there is a steep risk of a vapour cloud explosion as large volumes of hydrogen suddenly mix with the outside air.
Another disadvantage for hydrogen fuel is the lack of options for refuelling. For FCEVs, there are much fewer stations to refuel when compared to traditional petrol stations and charging points. This may change, if hydrogen fuel becomes more readily available, however for now it is an issue and will discourage many from investing in an FCEV. Another potential negative with the cars themselves is in relation to the lack of noise previously mentioned. This has been a known problem with electric vehicles as well, where the near silence of a hydrogen fuel cell engine may potentially lead to an increased risk of accidents as people are less likely to hear oncoming FCEVs.
To summarise, hydrogen fuel over the next years and decades could prove to be an exciting option for vehicle manufacturers and various other industries aiming to cut back their reliance on fossil fuels. As renewable energy technologies advance and the need for reduced emissions and less environmental harm continue to increase, it’s certainly possible that hydrogen fuel could be viable.
Hydrogen fuel is a clean form of energy, when produced correctly, that has a great fuel economy and energy efficiency. The world is heading in one direction, and it’s impossible to predict whether or not hydrogen fuel will become a global solution. However, the positives do seem to outweigh the negatives when taking into consideration the likely improvements of its transportation and production as research progresses into the future.
We’re committing ourselves to help our customers contribute towards the net-zero initiative. We’re currently working on a number of projects and solutions which will help to increase the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of alternative fuel. If you’d like to find out more about our solutions, get in touch.