Hydrogen is a major part of the government’s net zero strategy, appearing as second billing in the Prime Minister’s recently-released Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.
According to Boris Johnson, in his foreword to the plan, we could soon be cooking our breakfast on hydrogen while breathing in cleaner air, thanks to trucks, trains, ships and planes running on hydrogen rather than fossil fuels.
Hydrogen is also being hailed as the answer to decarbonising the UK’s heating.
But, of course, this is all hypothetical. Because as yet, there is no mainstream, affordable or low-carbon-manufactured source of hydrogen commercially available.
A solution since the seventies
This is despite hydrogen being hailed as a sustainable energy solution in the 1970s (during the oil crisis) and again in the 1990s (with nearly every car manufacturer launching a programme to build a fuel-cell vehicle).
For many decades, those in the energy sector have liked to joke that hydrogen is the fuel of the future – and always will be.
But could it be that now, with enough investment and focus, hydrogen will finally come to the fore?
The catch has always been that extracting hydrogen to use is a very energy-intensive process.
Currently, most hydrogen is made via steam methane reformation powered by fossil fuels. This generates around 11 tonnes of CO2 emissions for every tonne of hydrogen extracted.
To make it greener, some manufacturers are using carbon capture and storage to stop the emissions reaching the atmosphere.
But the greenest hydrogen of all could be made using renewable energy, powering a process to extract pure hydrogen from water by electrolysis. To date, this is also the most expensive method (in oil terms, the equivalent of around $270 per barrel versus $44 for oil).
Harnessing renewable power
However, with more than one million megawatt hours of wind power currently wasted each year (as the grid cannot yet accommodate peaks in intermittent generation), it’s proposed that harnessing this could instead produce up to 18,000 tonnes of hydrogen via electrolysis.
Certainly, developing zero-carbon hydrogen is part of the government’s Ten Point Plan.
However, as well as scaling up production, there are also safety, storage and transport concerns to consider.
Hydrogen is extremely flammable (although, to be fair, so is petrol). It is also invisible and odourless, so when storing or transporting, careful monitoring for any leaks is essential.
If not produced on site, hydrogen needs to be compressed or stored at low temperatures (where it becomes liquid) to keep the volume down when transporting.
This creates challenges when using it for fuel.
For example, any transport vehicle would need to incorporate robust double-walled cryogenic tanks to maintain hydrogen as liquid at -253°C. And although liquid hydrogen weighs less than regular petrol, it takes up about four times the volume, so having a major impact on design. This is all likely to add to the cost of production.
The government’s wish list
Overcoming challenges such as these will be necessary to achieving the key goals set out in the government’s hydrogen goals, which include:
- Reaching 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030.
- Developing hubs where hydrogen production can sit alongside renewable energy generation and carbon capture and storage.
- Pioneering hydrogen home heating trials.
- Creating hydrogen/gas blends to use in cooking and heating without changing existing domestic appliances (estimated to result in a 7% reduction in gas emissions).
- Encouraging the use of hydrogen in industrial processes, industrial heat and power, shipping and trucking.
- Attracting more than £4billion of private investment to finance hydrogen development up to 2030, alongside the £240million pledged as part of the government’s Net Zero Hydrogen Fund.
- Generating savings of 41 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent between 2023 and 2030, which accounts for 9% of the UK’s emissions.
Electric versus hydrogen vehicles
One area the government has not highlighted in its hydrogen plans is domestic vehicles, despite ‘Accelerating the shift to zero emissions vehicles’ appearing as point four in its Ten Point Plan.
Electric vehicles (EVs) seem to be the preferred option here.
But when it comes to reducing emissions in heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), hydrogen is suggested as part of the solution. Compared to EVs, hydrogen vehicles can refuel faster, drive longer distances and don’t need heavy and energy-intensive batteries.
Powering air and sea travel
Hydrogen is also seen as a solution to decarbonising air travel.
Indeed, the first hydrogen-powered commercial flight took off from Cranfield airport in Bedfordshire in September. And Airbus has announced plans to manufacture three hydrogen planes seating up to 200 passengers by 2035.
Shipping – another big source of global emissions – could also switch to hydrogen. Already, the world’s first hydrogen ferry is being trialed in Orkney.
So finally, could the much-anticipated ‘Dawn of the Hydrogen Age’ be set to become a reality? Only time will tell. But we’ll certainly be watching with interest…
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