Hydrogen, the fuel that is uniting the globe
Image credit: Ole Jørgen Bratland
In certain applications, hydrogen is a promising contender for a carbon-zero fuel. Which countries are leading the race for its implementation?
Hydrogen is the lightest gas with the lowest density. It is also plentiful; it is stored in water (H2O) and hydrocarbons, such as methane (CH4), but cannot be captured. It has to be separated in its compound state to produce a useable fuel. (In liquid form, hydrogen is 1/800 the volume of hydrogen in its gas state.)
When combined with oxygen in the atmosphere, hydrogen burns to release energy without producing carbon dioxide. Its energy value, at 120MJ/kg, is far higher than that of coal or gasoline (25JJ/kg and 47MJ/kg, respectively). The only by-product of the energy release is water vapour. In a compressed gas or liquid form, it can store energy for long periods and can be transported long distances by road, via pipelines or shipped around the world.
Today, use of hydrogen is confined to refineries. It is unlikely to be used in commercial vehicles and homes in the next 15 years, says Anise Ganbold, research leader for hydrogen and commodities at Aurora Energy Research. “We expect a lot of growth to come from existing sectors, like refineries and other industries, and for there to be a growth in the heating sector [in countries] where there is a lot of gas used in heat, like the UK and the Netherlands,” she explains. Replacing entire domestic heating systems will be expensive, so this is not likely until the mid-2040s onwards, she adds.
To encourage the production and use of hydrogen, there will be large government subsidies and investment in infrastructure. “Hydrogen itself is probably more than double the price compared to using fossil fuel directly in industry,” says Ganbold. “The benefit will be to decarbonise, and companies will take advantage of any decarbonisation subsidy or incentive schemes,” she believes.
Subsidies are expected to be announced in the UK Hydrogen Strategy report, which is expected to be released soon, having been delayed since 2020.
Since 2017, countries have been producing Hydrogen Strategy reports. The first was Japan, in which it set goals to reduce 2013 levels of CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
The country has few natural resources and will therefore rely on hydrogen production and imports. It is home to the world’s largest renewable hydrogen production facility – the 10MW Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (or FH2R).
Japan is also looking to extract hydrogen from brown coal reserves in Australia, liquefy the hydrogen and ship it to Japan.
In December 2019, Kawasaki Heavy Industries launched the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier. The Suiso Frontier has a vacuum-insulated double shell liquid hydrogen storage tank to maintain liquid hydrogen at -253°C for transportation by sea from the plant in Australia.
Both Toyota and Honda manufacture hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) for domestic use as well as export, principally to the US. Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy has set a goal for 800,000 FCVs by 2030, as well as 1,200 fuel cell buses.
Two partnerships, Honda and Isuzu Motors and Toyota and Hino Motors, are to research fuel cell lorries and Toyota has also signed an agreement with the railway company JR East to introduce fuel cell technology into railway freight. A demonstration test is planned for this year.
In March, China’s government announced its latest Five Year Plan (2021-2026), but there was no specific mention of hydrogen. It did, however, include the intention to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 13.5 per cent and to cut CO2 emissions by 18 per cent.
The government did say it wants to increase fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and aims to reach a target of one million on the road and 1,000 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2030.
In 2019, the country’s Science and Technology minister announced the Ningxia Baofeng Energy Group’s construction of the world’s largest solar-powered hydrogen plant in Ningxia Hui, north-west China. It will produce 160 million cubic metres of hydrogen per year. Production will begin this year, with two 10,000m3/hr electrolysers powered by two 100MW solar plants and a 1,000kg/day hydropower station.
Today, there are 200 hydrogen fuel cell buses in Shanghai, which are served by two hydrogen refuelling stations developed by partners Air Liquide and Sinopec. Air Liquide has also partnered with hydrogen technology company Huopu to introduce a hydrogen refuelling station in Beijing for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Other targets for the Games are 10 refuelling stations in the city and 1,000 fuel cell buses to transport visitors.
German companies Siemens and Linde will also provide a hydrogen production system and refuelling, respectively, for the Games.
Almost all of the hydrogen produced in the US is used for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertiliser and processing food.
Light-duty production vehicles, including the Honda FCX Clarity, are available in states which have hydrogen stations, which limits them to California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and North Carolina.
Of these states, California has 43 hydrogen fuelling stations with a further 19 at the planning stage or under construction. They serve over 8,000 FCEVs. There is one in Massachusetts and Connecticut and two in South Carolina.
Within hours of being sworn in as US President, Joe Biden signed an executive order to reinstate the US to the Paris Climate Agreement. In his election pledges, he promised voters a ‘Build Back Better’ plan to build a sustainable infrastructure and to deliver clean energy. The industry is waiting to hear the breakdown of his election pledge of a $2tn (£1.4tn) accelerated investment over his 2020-2024 term.
In June 2020, the EU produced its Hydrogen Strategy. It set targets of 6GW and 40GW electrolyser capacities by 2024 and 2030 respectively, producing green hydrogen.
The largest electrolyser under construction in Europe today has a 10MW capacity and current electrolyser capacity is under 1GW per year, so meeting these targets will require significant and rapid scaling up of production. Martin Lambert, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, describes these targets as ambitious. “If the 6GW targets by 2024 is to have any hope of being achieved, several EU governments will need to arrange competitive tenders for such projects in the next 12 months,” he says.
Even with ambitious targets, demand in the EU is likely to outstrip production. “40GW capacity (assuming around 4,000 running hours per year) equates to production capacity (in energy content) to around 12-15bcm (billion cubic metres) of natural gas, while in 2030 total natural gas demand in Europe is likely to be in excess of 400bcm,” Lambert says.
Within the EU, the German states of Hamburg, Bremen, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holsten have formed the HY-5 Green Hydrogen Initiative to develop a green hydrogen economic sector. It plans to install at least 500MW of electrolysis capacity by 2025, and to increase that to at least 5GW by 2030.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 2021 budget approved the installation of a 6MW electrolyser at the Sizewell nuclear site in Suffolk, a collaboration with Ryse Hydrogen and EDF Energy to produce hydrogen in and around the port of Felixstowe.
There was also £4.8m funding for a hydrogen plant in Holyhead, North Wales. The port will be the location for a hydrogen production hub, using renewable energy sources for heavy goods vehicles. It is planned to be operational in 2023.
In Humberside, investment is expected to be finalised between now and 2023 for Hydrogen to Humber Saltend (H2H Saltend), the world’s first net-zero cluster. The government has invested $170m (£122.4m) as part of its project to establish the first net-zero industrial cluster by 2040. The initial phase is a 600MW auto-thermal reforming processor with carbon capture to convert natural gas to hydrogen. Industries in the hub will be able to switch to hydrogen fuel. The power plant will operate 30:70 hydrogen/natural gas, enabling the Saltend Chemicals Park to reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 900,000 tonnes per year, says energy company Equinor, which is leading the H2H Saltend project.
Later phases will provide hydrogen to other industries in the immediate vicinity and across the Humber, via pipelines under the river. Building work will begin in 2024, with production as early as 2026.
At a local level, hydrogen buses are being trialled around the UK. Wrightbus has supplied hydrogen buses to Aberdeen and Birmingham City councils and to London’s TfL. “We are just starting with 20-30 buses in the UK, but there are probably 5,000 hydrogen buses around the world in pilot schemes,” says Jo Bamford, chairman of Wrightbus. He is also CEO of Ryse Hydrogen, which is building a 10MW electrolyser in Kent. The hydrogen, produced from offshore wind farms, will be compressed, and transported by road to London refuelling depots.
Import and export
It is likely that many countries will not be able to meet their hydrogen needs from renewables and will need to import hydrogen. “Germany is likely to be quite a strong importer, says Aurora Energy Research’s Ganbold, estimating that half of its hydrogen consumption is likely to be imported. “The UK, on the other hand, has a lot of hydrogen potential, especially as a producer of natural gas, so is likely to be less of an importer,” she adds.
“We have analysed hydrogen demand and 40GW will meet around half to two-thirds of European hydrogen demand, so half to one-third will need to be imported. Only a few regions are switching to low-carbon hydrogen,” she says, naming Japan, South Korea and the US. Countries that have a lot of sunshine or natural resources, like Russia, Morocco, Chile and Australia, will be exporters.
Imports will be via sea, road or pipelines. For the latter, natural gas pipelines will need to be upgraded as hydrogen molecules are extremely small so can easily escape.
Steel pipes and some of the modern plastics can tolerate hydrogen but older materials cannot, advises Ganbold. “The gas pipelines in eastern Europe are very mature, so it would cost a lot to upgrade them to carry hydrogen, or replace with new pipelines,” she says.
Investments by governments around the world are promoting an interest in hydrogen as a feasible alternative fuel for many industrial uses. Businesses are responding with feasible ways to use it to meet a zero-carbon future that is embraced by consumers as a convenient, zero-carbon option.
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