Hydrogen and its potential role in net zero sustainability


Hydrogen could play a central role in carbon reduction, net zero transport and maritime industries and as a feedstock for energy generation writes Nick Gibson who highlights applications, innovations and challenges surrounding hydrogen use in the net zero journey. 

Hydrogen power can aid carbon reduction because it has clean fuel potential for transport and industry and when used to generate energy the only product is water rather than carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels. It can also be created using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and wave power and via waste and biomass processes.

“Hydrogen has a big part to play in net zero,” says environmental lawyer Ross Fairley, head of Burges Salmon‘s Renewable Energy Team. “There’s huge interest in hydrogen due to its potential to decarbonise some of the hard-to-get areas of net zero that we’ve been unable to decarbonise to date and to provide solutions that can enhance existing approaches and technologies.”

Investment in hydrogen and its associated technologies and applications is increasing year-on-year, boosted by major countries’ plans to rapidly expand hydrogen production and use.

New hydrogen plants are being built in USA, UK and Europe; storage and distribution hubs are being established; industrial, transport and residential trials are underway alongside existing hydrogen use in a range of environments across industry. ZeroAvia has built and flown the world’s first hydrogen-powered zero emission aircraft while Haskel is developing hydrogen refuelling infrastructure for use by buses, HGVs, trains and shipping.

Use of hydrogen for shipping and transport would enable replacement of internal combustion engines with hydrogen combustion or hydrogen fuel cell systems which produce little or no emissions. In industry, switching to hydrogen from natural gas can reduce harmful emissions and eliminate CO2 emissions at the point of use. Liquid hydrogen can be used for energy storage to replace the only current long-term store of energy – natural gas.

“Hydrogen will undoubtedly have a role to play in decarbonisation and the path to net zero,” says Amna Bezanty, strategy lead at KEW Technology. “It is rapidly gaining ground as an alternative to petroleum and natural gas. Hydrogen production, especially from waste/biomass, will be part of the mix of technologies needed to deliver net zero at scale. The challenge will be scaling up the industry and distribution networks to meet demand.”

The International Energy Agency say global hydrogen demand in 2030 could exceed 200 million tons per year to meet agreed Net Zero emission targets. The greatest challenges are increasing production capacity and availability of safe and cost-effective hydrogen storage and transport infrastructure.

Bulk gas transportation will be critical as it’s the only broadly viable solution, says Jim Gregory European business development manager at Luxfer Gas Cylinders, who’re involved in supply of bulk gas transport modules to carry 1.1 tonnes of hydrogen across UK. “This represents an important step in enabling the hydrogen economy to be fully realised,” Gregory says.

Commercial opportunities offered by hydrogen

Commercial opportunities surrounding hydrogen include: production, storage and utilisation; transportation including marine and road; hydrogen refuelling stations; industrial and domestic heating using hydrogen; educational equipment for upskilling a workforce to be hydrogen ready;  membranes for gas separation and hydrogen purification; thermal management and cooling systems; development and testing of safety control systems using hydrogen demonstrator; energy management systems; energy integration; process modelling; carbon capture utilisation and storage; electrolysis; characterisation of material performance; corrosion analysis of materials; flowsheet development; chemistry and processes and as a catalyst for fuel cells

Initial demand for alternative fuel systems was mainly for public transport, road freight and automotive design but has now expanded to include shipping, forklift trucks, off-highway vehicles and aerospace. Hyundai’s XCIENT, the world’s first fuel cell HGV, is used in commercial fleets in Switzerland; fuel cell refuse trucks are being used in seven cities in the EU HECTOR project; new 3 GW Hydrogen-ready gas-fired power plants are planned in NW Germany where Alstom’s Coradia iLints is the world’s first hydrogen-powered train.

“Hydrogen has a key role to play in carbon reduction and net zero,” says Gregory whose company specialise in hydrogen storage. “Fuel cells provide a zero emissions solution comparable to electric vehicles combined with range and convenience comparable to diesel or petrol. There will soon be a hydrogen version of almost every kind of transport.”

Caragh McWhirr, Head of Hydrogen Strategy at Xodus says: “Hydrogen is one of the many potential energy sources that could help reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. One kilogram of hydrogen can deliver the same power as a gallon of diesel. It’s quicker to refuel a hydrogen-powered vehicle than recharge an EV and for large freight trucks batteries cannot provide adequate power for long-haul journeys.”

Innovation is flourishing, exampled by Emerald Green who are mapping the carbon footprint of a UK industrial park using AI digital twin technology to manage output of a 100MW Green Hydrogen Hub; DRIFT Energy creating hydrogen energy using vessels that roam the sea to generate and store hydrogen with AI directing the autonomous vessels to where sea conditions will generate most power; and KEW Technology using advanced gasification to convert waste and biomass feedstocks and produce hydrogen-rich syngas as an alternative fuel for transportation and industry and as substitute for LPG and diesel for off-grid energy.

Amna Bezanty believes there’s an urgent need to define the role that hydrogen will play as a solution for decarbonisation. “We must recognise it will be different responses for different geographical infrastructure,” she says. “The debate rolls on as to whether it is just going to be a generation fuel.”

Production and delivery are challenges to overcome

Most hydrogen currently used is made from fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide with some carbon capture and storage involved. “Untapping hydrogen’s true potential in carbon reduction relies on development of materials to more efficiently process and store hydrogen so that carbon can be removed from the equation,” says Professor Martin Owen Jones, energy materials coordinator at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

Hydrogen converted to ammonia is widely touted as the solution. Used as hydrogen storage it can overcome issues around production, safe and efficient storage, infrastructure, and transportation.

“Ammonia is already one of the most transported bulk chemicals worldwide for use in agriculture and is proven in industry where ammonia-based turbines generate distributed power for off-grid areas,” says Jones. “It could save over 40 million tonnes of CO2 each year in Europe, or over 360 million tonnes worldwide.”

With shipping accounting for nearly five per cent of global emissions ammonia can help large maritime organisations meet net-zero targets, says Caragh McWhirr at Xodus. “With carbon abatement an increasing priority having zero or low transport fleets will be crucial if we are to decarbonise the entire supply chain.”

Matt Browell-Hook, energy director at Costain, believes UK has the skills and experience to create and manage an industrial-scale hydrogen economy.

“Hydrogen, once produced, provides very real benefits to industrial scale processes to reduce emissions by many orders of magnitude over today’s levels,” says Browell-Hook. “For hydrogen to be the true panacea for thermodynamic process production we need to address production challenges to enable large scale low carbon hydrogen sources. This can be done by investing in carbon capture and sequestration techniques for SMR and scaling up our electrolysis capability, including factoring in the use of renewable energy sources.

“In the UK we have a highly experienced, credible and world leading capability in managing high hazard industrial processes and industries, which makes us uniquely placed to be at the forefront of the roll out of hydrogen production and management at a truly industrial scale.”

Evidence of success will accelerate sustainability

To prove the case for a decarbonised world industry must demonstrate evidence of success audited by an independent authority says Ross Fairley. “Hydrogen is the first big test within the wider terms of net zero, as opposed to single-issue carbon-reduction, because it interacts with all the other key sectors and core elements such as energy, transport, built environment and agriculture and it will replace fossil fuels as a key industrial feedstock. The industry must get all these key sectors working together to prove the case for an holistic net zero solution across both demand and production markets.”

Caragh McWhir at Xodus believes hydrogen will be one of a blend of net zero solutions. “As we continue to innovate low-carbon solutions hydrogen will dominate an increasing number of markets but it is unrealistic to expect it to fit all our energy needs. Hydrogen has its place within the future energy mix but it cannot be the only answer to solving all our problems.”

The UK Energy strategy aims to double production capacity for hydrogen to 10GW by 2030 a move welcomed by the industry but more commitment from government is required, Fairley asserts. “Hydrogen can only fulfil its potential if government and authorities actively support and promote it. What’s needed from government is belief in hydrogen as a long term solution along with clarity of vision and positive action that will stimulate investment and growth. Hydrogen has the potential to be transformational as an industry, as an economic power house and as a net zero solution.”

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