Hydrogen Energy: Powering Applications Near You

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on August 30, 2016
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The opening ceremony for the Rio Olympics had a strong environmental message. This is not surprising, as Brazil is home to one of our planet’s “lungs”—the Amazon, which is amazingly rich in biodiversity and quite susceptible to climate change. Like many competitions in the Olympics, sustainability is now a race against time.

One of the tools that can help win the sustainability race is clean and abundant hydrogen—although global consumption of hydrogen barely registers at just 1% of the world’s energy mix today. The good news is that over the past decade, hydrogen energy has made significant, albeit silent, progress to the point where this most energetic element now powers things that people may not even be aware. Continued progress is needed if hydrogen is to achieve its potential as a significant energy contributor in our race to a sustainable planet. This week’s post explores the evolution of hydrogen applications—past, present, and future.

STS-27, Orbiter Atlantis, Liftoff

Photo by NASA on The Commons [Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Past: The Slow but Steady Progress of Hydrogen Applications

The email technology you use every day is a technology of the 70s, yet it took until the mid-90s before email was widespread and the Internet took off. The same adoption growth curve is happening with hydrogen today. The impressive breakthroughs and applications we are beginning to see were preceded by hydrogen’s slow but steady rise as an industrial element found in many of our everyday products. One of the most common, traditional uses of hydrogen is found in ammonia, chemical formula NH3, a basic ingredient of fertilizers, which is also present in many households in very low concentrations to make it a safe product. Hydrogen has also been traditionally used as a key element for refining natural gas. Another interesting application can be found in high-tech, specifically in its use to clean semiconductors, which require the atomically clean surface that hydrogen can create.

As we are familiar, NASA has been using hydrogen fuel since the 60s. The Space Program was a major contributor to hydrogen fuel progress. For perspective, NASA indicates, “With the Centaur, Apollo and Space Shuttle vehicles, NASA has developed extensive experience in the safe and effective handling of hydrogen.” The agency plans to expand the use of hydrogen in space for missions to the Moon and Mars stating, “Hydrogen will continue to be innovatively stored, measured, processed, and employed.”

The Present: Hydrogen is Here

The five-decade progress in the development of hydrogen applications has recently accelerated to the point where hydrogen’s ability to power industrial and business applications are no longer the stuff of the future. The use of hydrogen seems to be at an inflection point, and exponential growth could be around the corner if the steady progress in hydrogen technology and market viability continues at its current pace. What’s driving the rapid uptake of hydrogen in industry are business 101 principles such a reliable electricity supply, better energy management control, enhancing corporate image through environmental stewardship, and reduction in energy costs.

The use of hydrogen energy for business and industry applications is on the rise. Industry reports indicate that almost 10% of Fortune 500 companies are using hydrogen to generate a portion of the electricity for their operations. Specifically, 23% of Fortune 100 companies use hydrogen for primary or backup power generation to run their businesses. This is significant, as this elite group of companies historically acts as early adopters for commercial operations technologies. Specifically, the use of hydrogen for primary power generation provides direct savings in electricity, while using it as a back-up “saves customers from worry” of depending on the grid to be up 24/7, especially during inclement weather.

Hydrogen energy has also gained strong commercial traction powering business operations and data centers. For instance, companies like Apple and Microsoft power a portion of their data centers with hydrogen. This has been a “sweet spot” for the tech industry because some data centers consume as much energy as a small city. According to a recent study by the School of Computing and Communications (SCC) at the University of Lancaster, smart devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) are expected to consume as much as 20% of total energy by 2030; “this growing consumption is a significant concern in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.” Therefore, the savings and environmental impact of moving to clean power, such as hydrogen, is quite evident to tech companies. On the consumer products side, giants like Procter & Gamble and Walmart, amongst many others, use hydrogen energy in forklifts to move goods in and out of their warehouses. Telecommunications providers like AT&T and Verizon use hydrogen to power many of their cell towers. And Google provides electricity to their headquarters in Mountain View, California using clean hydrogen.

A recent article by Nature aptly titled, “Hydrogen on the Rise,” explores the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier. An energy carrier means that hydrogen can directly power applications as a fuel, just like any other. The article highlights the “tangible progress” that has been made in the quest to use hydrogen as a transportation fuel and the prospects of exponential growth for the industry; it also explores how hydrogen can power the grid. The article points out, “Plans were announced to transform the UK city of Leeds into a ‘hydrogen city’ in which the natural gas that runs through the city’s pipes would be switched to hydrogen.” This is an important milestone, as the electricity grid of most cities uses fossil fuels to generate a significant part of the electricity that powers our homes and businesses. In the case of Leeds, the plan is to have hydrogen replace the natural gas that goes into homes and industry. However, it first requires the conversion of boilers and stoves, which the city estimates will cost around £2 billion. Issues, such as safety and hydrogen production that results in zero carbon emissions, are still in the works for the city of Leeds.

The Future: Hydrogen Will Do Much More

Society is starting to benefit from decades of research and development in the area of hydrogen. Key issues like safety, availability, and affordability are no longer intractable. As a result, this clean and abundant energy source is making its way into our everyday lives, many times without us even noticing. Similar to the introduction of other new energies into the marketplace, early applications begin quite focused and then expand to areas we never imagined. The hydrogen technology that debuted in NASA space probes in the 70s now supplies a portion of the power that makes e-commerce and well-stocked retail stores possible. However, there’s a long way to go. Hydrogen’s meager 1% global energy share is not enough for us to win the race against time on climate change or to help us take energy to the one billion people who have none; progress needs to continue.

At Joi Scientific, we see a bright future sparked by an emerging hydrogen energy revolution that is already changing the game for businesses and consumers around the world. Our work on Hydrogen 2.0 aims to accelerate this movement by breaking the three barriers for widespread hydrogen energy adoption: affordability, zero emissions, and safety.

We imagine a future where hydrogen gives everyone a no-compromise choice between what’s affordable and what’s sustainable. Hydrogen promises to make everyday choices for consumers and businesses—such as running data centers, providing electricity to entire cities, or driving a car—painless for both people and the environment. Like the seemingly unbreakable Olympic records, the barrier between a sustainable planet and a thriving society is set to be broken.


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