So abundant it is practically limitless? Check. Available 24/7? Check. Clean? Check. The most common element in the universe, the most plentiful on our planet, the one that makes water when combusted, hydrogen embodies many exceptional properties that make it the ultimate clean energy source to move our society forward.
Nature has figured out how to release an extraordinary amount of energy from the number one element through a fusion process that powers the sun and every star in the universe. Indeed, hydrogen is the original source of all the energy we use including solar, wind, nuclear, and even hydrocarbons, which assume the “hydro” part of their name from the hydrogen they contain.
This holy grail of energy is a most challenging element. That is why, despite its ideal characteristics as a fuel, hydrogen is not powering everything around us. Yet. The last decade has seen tremendous innovation in areas that solve for the traditional challenges of using hydrogen as a source of energy. In fact, hydrogen is already powering more things than you can imagine—from cars to planes, and from corporate headquarters to space probes. Technology is rapidly catching up, making the day when we can finally realize hydrogen’s full energy potential for society ever closer.
For an energy source to be called anything like “holy grail,” three very practical things need to be present. First, it must be abundant and available so that access to it can be truly “democratic.” Second, it must yield its energy content easily and inexpensively in comparison to other alternatives. Finally, it must be clean—100% clean.
Recent advances in technology hold the potential to meet these basic requirements for widespread hydrogen use. If successful, this could, indeed, make hydrogen the ‘holy grail’ of energy in the near future because it would require no tradeoffs between availability, cost, and sustainability. It would, thereby, end the forced compromises that most other energy sources impose to become the “forever” energy of choice.
Here are the three challenges that must be solved to unlock the “forever energy” potential of hydrogen:
The hydrogen in your glass of water is the same element as the one that fuels all the stars. The most abundant substance on Earth, every molecule of water contains hydrogen. The trick is to find a practical way to extract hydrogen from water to release the limitless ‘star-quality’ energy potential in this element. The hydrogen-oxygen bonds in water are very strong, and thus, hard to break.
Extracting hydrogen from water is not easy. In its natural state, hydrogen is a gas. It is a very common gas in the universe, comprising 90% of all matter, but it is quite rare on Earth. This is because pure hydrogen will bond with basically any other element or molecule nearby. So here on our planet, any free hydrogen naturally bonds with oxygen in the atmosphere to form water vapor. Yet, the water is there, waiting for human ingenuity to figure out a way to release hydrogen to create a limitless source of energy on a global scale.
Hydrogen has the highest energy per unit of mass of any fuel. This high energy is why, despite technical obstacles in its handling and storage, hydrogen continues to be an extremely attractive fuel for certain applications. To put its energy content in perspective, the combustion of hydrogen releases 3-times more energy than that of gasoline and almost 7-times that of coal, on an equivalent weight basis. These differentials are significant.
The challenge has historically been volume: hydrogen is less dense than other fuels. In its natural state as a gas, the atoms in hydrogen are too dispersed. You would need a room full of hydrogen gas to yield the same energy equivalent as a gallon of gasoline, which is not practical. A partial solution to this mass versus volume conundrum has been to liquefy hydrogen—a process that significantly raises its production, storage and transportation costs versus other fuel alternatives.
One promising avenue to realize hydrogen’s true potential is to produce it on-site and on-demand. This would eliminate the need to store and transport hydrogen in a liquid or gas form. The element would yield its energy content directly into the application it is needed for—like generating electricity for utilities and powering transportation.
The last of the challenges that the industry is working to overcome involves the clean production of hydrogen. Whereas the combustion of hydrogen does not create CO2 emissions (the only by-product is water vapor that is re-incorporated into the environment), the traditional production of hydrogen does create greenhouse gases. This is because the two most common methods historically used to produce hydrogen fuel, the steam reformation of natural gas and the gasification of coal, are processes that use hydrocarbons.
Traditional hydrogen fuel methods require high amounts of energy. As a result, they emit an average of 5 kilograms of greenhouse gases for every 1 kilogram of hydrogen produced. Due to the inefficiency of these processes, the advantages of clean hydrogen are offset by the carbon produced to extract it from the hydrocarbon sources. 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.
The good news is that there are several sustainable ways to produce hydrogen on the horizon. Advanced techniques are emerging that enable the production of hydrogen without carbon emissions. These clean approaches appear promising and several are in the development and testing stages around the world.
Unmatched Abundant, Available and Clean Energy
Advances in technology make solving these traditional challenges for hydrogen adoption ever closer. Recent innovations around hydrogen availability, production, and sustainability will enable us to meet the critical requirements that make a fuel ‘irresistible.’
At Joi Scientific, our work on Hydrogen 2.0 technology, focuses on producing hydrogen fuel directly from water, on-site and on-demand, with no carbon emissions. Our approach to solving the traditional challenges for widespread adoption could power our planet with the same abundant, available and clean “forever” energy that lights up the rest of the universe.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.