By Irina Slav
Few younger readers will remember how popular hydrogen fuel cells were in the media a couple of decades ago. They came before electric cars. They were supposed to be the cleaner alternative to internal combustion engines. And they never really took off because hydrogen fuel cells were simply too costly to make. But people continued to work with hydrogen because it is the most abundant element in the universe, and its conversion into energy does not as a rule result in harmful by-products.
A recent study by researchers from Kumamoto University found a way to extract hydrogen from ammonia without the release of noxious nitrogen oxides. They added a new compound comprising copper, silicon, and aluminum, which made ammonia combust at lower than usual temperatures, and it eliminated the release of nitrogen oxides. Theoretically, this method could produce energy from hydrogen in a much cheaper way than other existing methods. Until it’s scalable, this breakthrough remains in the potential stage.
Meanwhile in Europe, renewable power is becoming so abundant that it could be used to produce cheap hydrogen without the need for any scientific breakthroughs. Last month Euractiv cited a report from a German analytical firm, Energy Brainpool, that said surplus electricity from solar and wind farms can be used to convert water into hydrogen through hydrolysis. Hydrogen is relatively easy to store and use when needed or fed into the hydrogen fueling station network, which, truth be told, is a very sparse network.
According to Energy Brainpool, using surplus electricity for hydrogen production can become cheaper with time as the efficiency levels of solar and wind installations rise and maintenance costs decline further. In fact, at some point in the future, hydrogen could become cheaper than natural gas, which would naturally have major implications for its adoption. Again, this is only a theory because power-to-gas facilities in some countries in Europe are subject to high feed-in tariffs and grid charges that make them uneconomical in the application outlined by Energy Brainpool.
Despite the challenges, work will certainly continue to find ways to use hydrogen as energy source or even as an alternative to batteries. Hydrogen can be used for the storage of energy through hydrolysis—the process that breaks down water into its constituent elements. The hydrogen resulting from this process is then stored in caverns or tanks until the time comes when it needs to be converted back into electricity in gas-powered plants, for instance, or in fuel cells for vehicles. Again, costs are to date proving prohibitive for scaling this application of the gas.
Early 2017 saw the launch of the Hydrogen Council, a group involving several leading automakers as well as Shell and Total, seeking ways to make hydrogen more commercially viable. The council allocated $1.4 billion to the development of energy storage and fuel cell project development until 2020, and has high hopes for the future. Indeed, the latest edition of gasworld that took place last month in Amsterdam had the Hydrogen Council’s Secretary Pierre-Etienne Franc talk about a hydrogen economy.
Hydrogen is tempting because of its abundance and the various ways in which it can be used as a cleaner alternative to oil and gas. Without solving the cost and scalability problems, however, it may never live to see its heyday.