Towards a Hydrogen Economy

Updated on May 2, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

As the 21st century began, hydrogen power was everyone’s favourite way out of the global warming trap. Then, it faded into the background. Now, a revival is underway.

Conceptualization of a hydrogen atom.
Conceptualization of a hydrogen atom. | Source

Energy Storage

Hydrogen is a very simple element and it’s the most plentiful one in the Universe. It does not appear on its own as a gas on Earth; it always appears in combination with other elements. Water is a combination of two parts of hydrogen and one part oxygen.

The two elements can be separated by passing an electrical current through water in a process called electrolysis. Hydrogen can also be removed from natural gas, alcohols, and biomass.

Of course, in all cases, energy is needed to produce hydrogen and compress it into small vessels. As The Guardian notes “… hydrogen is really an energy carrier or storage medium rather than an energy source in itself - and the climate change impact of using it depends on the carbon footprint of the energy used to produce it.”

Some countries, such as Canada, have an abundance of hydroelectric power that could be used to create vast quantities of hydrogen. They can use green power to produce more green power. But, there are inefficiencies. Only about half the energy used to produce hydrogen is actually available to power a car; the rest is lost as heat.

In addition, the electrolysis process is expensive. According to the website Sciencing, “For hydrogen to become competitive, researchers will need to find new, more efficient, and cost-effective ways to produce large amounts of hydrogen.”

The gas giant Jupiter is made up of mostly hydrogen and helium.
The gas giant Jupiter is made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. | Source

Fuel Cells

Renewable Energy World notes that “Hydrogen is high in energy, yet an engine that burns pure hydrogen produces almost no pollution. NASA has used liquid hydrogen since the 1970s to propel the Space Shuttle and other rockets into orbit.”

The family car doesn’t need that kind of power, and while experimental vehicles use hydrogen as the primary energy source they do so through something called a fuel cell.

The hydrogen gas is compressed and stored in a high-pressure tank. Here, J.D. Power picks up the description, “… the gas is passed through a fuel-cell stack that mixes the pure hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen to generate electric current. The electricity is then used to power one or more electric motors driving the wheels.”

Fuel cells are often compared to batteries in that a chemical reaction produces electric power. The difference is that a fuel cell never loses its charge as long as it’s supplied with hydrogen.

The only thing that comes out of the exhaust pipe is water clean enough to drink. In the days when the Space Shuttle flew, hydrogen fuel cells powered the craft’s electrical systems. The crew drank the water created as a by-product.

Hydrogen-Powered Cars

In Britain, Hugo Spowers has developed one of several experimental hydrogen-powered cars. His Rasa test car has two seats and uses lightweight materials. Oliver Franklin-Wallis writes (The Guardian, January 2018) that innovative engineering “… lets the Rasa achieve the equivalent of more than 250 miles per gallon. Running on hydrogen from renewable sources that would make it a contender for the most sustainable car in the world.”

Japanese automaker Toyota already has a hydrogen fuel-cell production model on the road. The Mirai (Japanese for dream) is the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen fuel-cell car.

Autofocus reports “The four-door sedan … can travel about 650 kilometres on a single tank, and can be refuelled in minutes, like a gasoline-powered vehicle.”

For hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to catch on a refuelling infrastructure has to be built. Small steps are being made in this direction; California has more than 100 hydrogen fuel stations.

President George W. Bush checks out a hydrogen refuelling station in 2005.
President George W. Bush checks out a hydrogen refuelling station in 2005. | Source

There are other problems. Hydrogen is very flammable and can explode. Vehicles do crash into each other so some expensive engineering is needed to protect the hydrogen tank.

However, The Evening Standard in the United Kingdom points out that “Many folk seem to equate hydrogen with catastrophic explosions, even though the truth is that hydrogen is safer to carry in a car than petrol (gasoline).”

This is a hydrogen-fuelled bus in Aberdeen, Scotland. It completes its entire daily route on one fill up.
This is a hydrogen-fuelled bus in Aberdeen, Scotland. It completes its entire daily route on one fill up. | Source

Hydrogen Cost per Kilometre

There is some information about the comparative cost of running gasoline- versus hydrogen-powered vehicles. The Evening Standard newspaper ran a Toyota Mirai for several months and then got its calculator out.

The total cost for running a hydrogen fuel-cell Mirai over 430 km was $84.7. The cost for the same distance in a similar-sized gasoline car was $79.60. So, the hydrogen vehicle costs about seven percent more to run than its gasoline counterpart. However, the hydrogen car has zero harmful emissions.

The Evening Standard summed up by saying “Considering how early days this experimental car is, that seems pretty good to us.”

A cutaway of Toyota's Mirai showing the barrel-shaped fuel tank.
A cutaway of Toyota's Mirai showing the barrel-shaped fuel tank. | Source

Powering Buildings

Hydrogen technology can also be used for heating and cooling buildings as well as supplying electricity to run lights, appliances, and computers.

Hydrogen can be shipped along pipelines in the same way as natural gas. So, with slight modifications, it can be delivered to home furnaces just as natural gas is. The upside is that the only by-product of burning hydrogen is water, whereas natural gas gives off masses of carbon dioxide.

In 2016, the consulting firm KPMG analyzed a proposal to switch home heating in the U.K. from natural gas to hydrogen. Its report said it would cost about $90 billion to make the conversion and add about $300 a year to the average home gas bill. At the same time, it would lead to a 70 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Telegraph commented (September 2017) that “Crucially, the consultants said hydrogen heating would be the least hassle for energy customers because very few appliances would need to be replaced.”

Safety of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is colourless, odourless, tasteless, and non-toxic, but it can explode. However, it is less likely to burst into flames than gasoline or propane. It is lighter than air and so floats upwards as it dissipates.

Its reputation for being extremely dangerous is based, to some extent, on a falsehood. In 1937, the giant airship, Hindenburg, burst into flames as it came in to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey. At the time, it was thought the disaster that killed 36 people was caused by the hydrogen, used to keep it aloft, exploding. More recently, the coating used to treat the outer skin has been blamed. Whatever the true story, the idea that hydrogen was too dangerous to use took hold.

Seventy years later, modern technology has made the handling of hydrogen much safer.

The Hindenburg accident probably set back hydrogen research by several decades.
The Hindenburg accident probably set back hydrogen research by several decades. | Source

Bonus Factoids

The world will never run out of hydrogen.

According to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, hydrogen accounts for an estimated 90 percent of all the atoms in the Universe and three quarters of its mass.

Hydrogenation is a process in which oils and fats are heated up under pressure so that hydrogen can be added. It’s used by the food industry to prolong the shelf life of such things as peanut butter and margarine. Unfortunately, hydrogenated foods raise the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the level of good cholesterol (HDL). The Harvard School of Public Health says that consumption of hydrogenated foods contribute to the deaths of 30,000 Americans every year.

Sources

  • “Hydrogen Energy.” Renewable Energy World, undated.
  • “How do Hydrogen Cars Work?” Jeff Youngs, J.D. Power,
  • December 31, 2011.
  • “ ‘It’s a no-Brainer’: Are Hydrogen Cars the Future?” Oliver Franklin-Wallis, The Guardian, January 20, 2018.
  • “What’s the ‘Hydrogen Economy’?” Grantham Institute, Imperial College London and Duncan Clark, The Guardian, October 11, 2012.
  • “Toyota Going Ahead With the First Mass-Produced Hydrogen Car.” Nicholas Maronese, Autofocus.ca, November 20, 2014.
  • “Hydrogen Advantages & Disadvantages.” Dennis Hartman, Sciencing.com, April 24, 2017.
  • “How Much Does a Hydrogen Car Cost to Run?” Tony Middlehurst, The Evening Standard, July 25, 2017.
  • “£50bn Plan for Hydrogen Gas Sparks Back to Life.” Jillian Ambrose, The Telegraph, September 2, 2017.

Questions & Answers

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