The Challenges of Hydrogen: Light Element, Heavy Burden

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on April 05, 2016
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For many of us, hydrogen is a fascinating element with unique qualities that can help us solve many of the energy problems we face today. In his book Hydrogen: The Essential Element (Harvard University Press, 2003), physicist John Ridgden writes, “Hydrogen is the mother of all atoms and molecules.” In his review of that book, Norman Ramsey, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1989, goes further into this idea by writing, “Hydrogen truly has been the essential element in the evolution of our universe, in the development of the early quantum theory of atomic structure, quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, nuclear magnetic resonance, and the creation of the atomic clock, and in many other discoveries and theoretical advances.”


Tarantula Nebula is the star-forming region of ionized hydrogen gas in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy. Photo by NASA.

It is hard to even comprehend just how abundant hydrogen is: the universe consists today of about 90 percent hydrogen. It is not only the most abundant; it is essential. The same hydrogen atom that bonds with oxygen to create water is also the basic fuel of every star that shines in the universe.

Yet, this abundant and simple element, with its unimaginable energy potential, has been, for all practical purposes, out of our reach as a fuel that could power everything around us.

Why hydrogen’s chemical simplicity is deceiving

Hydrogen is, to put it mildly, a challenging element. Noted physicist Victor Weisskopf reportedly said, “To understand hydrogen is to understand all of physics.” For all of its simplicity, we have historically not been able to unlock hydrogen’s full energy potential. Unlike other energy sources, hydrogen is not an easy element to extract, store, or transport. Therefore, hydrogen remains merely a niche “energy carrier” that is used for very specific, niche applications.

Anybody working to make the hydrogen economy a reality must overcome the following three challenges that have prevented the widespread adoption of hydrogen energy:

• Extraction
• Storage
• Distribution

Challenge #1: Extracting Hydrogen

The process to extract and purify hydrogen so that it can be used as a fuel is expensive and energy-intensive. There isn’t much pure elemental hydrogen around us. This is because hydrogen is atomically small, light, and tends to bond easily with other elements. To make hydrogen fuel, the hydrogen atoms must be separated from whatever they are attached to, and that requires energy. For this reason, hydrogen is often called an “energy carrier” rather than an energy source.

Thus, the first challenge we encounter with hydrogen is extracting it by breaking the bond it has with other elements at rates that are cost efficient. Traditionally, it has taken much more effort to isolate and store hydrogen than it returns in energy value. This difficulty makes the cost of traditional large-scale hydrogen production prohibitive.

There are several methods of extracting hydrogen. Since water is so abundant, a traditional method for extracting it is electrolysis, which applies an electrical current to water to catalyze a chemical reaction that liberates hydrogen from its oxygen bond. The amount of energy required to split this chemical bond through electrolysis is an extremely energy intensive process and usually does not justify the energy available in the hydrogen that is produced.

The most common method for hydrogen production is the steam reformation of hydrocarbons, which reacts natural gas with high-temperature steam to clip off the carbons from hydrogen. Unfortunately, this process is anything but clean: 5 kilograms of carbon are emitted for every 1 kilogram of hydrogen produced. It’s not hard to guess where that carbon goes—the atmosphere, as CO2. Finally, there is coal gasification whereby coal is made into a gas, impurities are removed, and hydrogen is recovered. This process also results in significant CO2.

The problem with all of these methods is their inefficiency compared to other fuels, which makes hydrogen extraction expensive. Equally important, the advantages of clean hydrogen are offset by the carbon produced to extract it from hydrocarbons or coal. Today, more than 90% of the world’s hydrogen energy is currently produced from fossil fuels. This makes no sense for an alternative energy source.

Challenge #2: Storing Hydrogen

Once you’ve got the hydrogen, it wants to spread out or escape. Getting enough of it, by mass, in one place to be of practical use (and worth the transportation effort) is difficult. Hydrogen molecules are very small and, therefore, more prone to leakage—a problem exacerbated by the fact that it must be stored at high pressure to provide sufficient energy density.

Thus, the second difficulty encountered is storing hydrogen as a fuel. Today, liquid hydrogen, which is the most common form of storage, is hard and expensive to handle. Like natural gas, hydrogen in its elemental form is volatile and flammable. To make storage even more challenging, a fraction of the liquefied hydrogen boils off every day. This is because hydrogen becomes a liquid only at the ultra-frigid temperature of minus 253 degrees Celsius (minus 423 F) at atmospheric pressure.

Also, hydrogen tends to permeate metal due to its tiny size. Storage tanks, known as cryogenic storage, have to be super-insulated and even so, eventually some of the hydrogen seeps out. The cost of cryogenic storage including the cost of the storage tank, the equipment to compress or liquefy hydrogen, and to maintain compression is high. In fact, the sheer complexity and cost of building and operating hydrogen infrastructure on the scale we take for granted with natural gas or petroleum are the biggest roadblocks to widespread adoption.

Despite these difficulties, significant progress continues to be made in hydrogen storage. Companies like Cella Energy for example, are working on advanced materials and technologies for safe, lightweight, high-performance hydrogen storage technology.

Challenge #3: Transporting Hydrogen

The transportation of hydrogen to its place of consumption poses the third major challenge to widespread adoption. The unique chemical properties that make hydrogen challenging to store, also make it challenging to transport.

Hydrogen is taken to market in tanker trucks or pipelines. Tanker trucks carry the element in a compressed or liquefied form. However, the process of compression itself lowers the usable energy in hydrogen quite substantially. Then, after delivery, the fueling station has to use a pressurization system, which consumes even more of the remaining usable energy. Unlike other forms of energy, storage and transport alone offset as much as 50% of all the energy in the hydrogen delivered.

Another way to deliver hydrogen is via gas pipelines. Several thousand miles of hydrogen pipelines are in use around the world today. They are the least expensive option for transporting large volumes of hydrogen, but when compared to pipelines for natural gas or oil, hydrogen pipelines are quite expensive. These pipelines have a capital cost of about $1,000,000-per-mile, as they carry a fuel that is highly reactive and prone to leaks.

The costly infrastructure needed to support traditional hydrogen is one of the reasons why it has not been adopted yet. Some efforts to tackle the challenges of transporting hydrogen focus on a distributed energy system, where hydrogen is extracted from natural gas delivered by an existing pipeline, converted to H2 and made available on location.

Overcoming the challenges

At Joi Scientific, we are working to make hydrogen available as a source of clean energy at a price point that can compete with traditional and alternative fuels. We call it Hydrogen 2.0.

By producing hydrogen efficiently, on-demand, right where it is needed, Hydrogen 2.0 can eliminate or minimize costly infrastructure and lower the barriers to widespread adoption so that developed and developing economies can adopt sustainable and affordable hydrogen fuel. When we realize this vision, hydrogen will eventually make its way to power all kinds of applications everywhere, unlocking a new energy source for humanity that can help us make progress without painful compromises.

There couldn’t be a better time to be working on the realization of the promise of hydrogen.

Here’s a short video where I, along with some of our science advisors explain the challenges and opportunities of Hydrogen 2.0.

Stay on top of our efforts to bring about Hydrogen 2.0. Subscribe to our blog and get our articles in your inbox. Get more information on Hydrogen 2.0 here.


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