The Path from Hydrogen Abundance to Availability

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on February 21, 2017
Vicky Harris
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No-Compromise Hydrogen, Part 2

Last week, we opened our No-Compromise Hydrogen blog series by stating that, at a universal level, abundant hydrogen is the ultimate energy. This is because hydrogen powers every single star, including our sun. As such, it is the source of all light, all life, and all energy. In fact, no matter where you get your energy—from solar, wind, fossil fuels, or hydrothermal—hydrogen created it in the first place. Hydrogen is everywhere: in outer space lighting the stars above and here on Earth making water and sustaining life all around us.

The fact that the most abundant element in the universe is also the most energetic of them all has intrigued scientists and entrepreneurs for centuries. Hydrogen’s potential to be the ‘holy grail’ for the energy industry has always been there and for a good reason—just one gram of hydrogen fuel yields the same amount of energy as ten million grams of coal when subjected to the pressures inside stars. Though not a bad equation, the path to realizing even a fraction of this nearly unimaginable energy potential has been waiting for human ingenuity to make it real.

“Abundant” is Not Equal to “Available” in the Case of Hydrogen

Hydrogen’s atomic properties actually constrain its availability despite its presence everywhere. As one of the most reactive of all atoms, it bonds easily with most other elements to form compounds. The high capacity to react with almost everything makes hydrogen abundant in all kinds of matter. In fact, hydrogen makes up 90% of all the matter in the universe and the most number of compounds on Earth. The bonds created by hydrogen atoms when they react with other elements to form molecules are quite strong. For example, the DNA molecule’s double helix structure is held together by robust hydrogen bonds that glue DNA’s two arms together; without them, there would be no life.

For the most abundant molecule on our planet, water, the bond between its hydrogen and oxygen atoms is particularly strong. This is the reason why water is so stable. For example, it can travel in comets for billions of years without its molecule breaking up. The paradox of the most abundant element of all is that this strong water bond has historically limited its availability for use as an energy source to specific, niche applications, such as rocket fuel or industrial gases. The reason is simple economics: harvesting hydrogen from water through methods such as electrolysis or steam reforming is inefficient, expensive, and not very clean.

Making Hydrogen Available

The challenge for the energy industry has been how to transform hydrogen’s ubiquitous abundance into broad availability. Scientists know that the energetic properties of the number one element would give society a nearly limitless source of fuel. Since its discovery in 1766, scientists have worked on several methods to harvest it, mainly from water, which is where it is the most abundant. This has been a slow but steady area of progress, and we seem to have finally reached the turning point where we can make hydrogen readily available.

Cars powered by hydrogen roam the roads today, such as the Toyota Mirai. Public buses in several cities use hydrogen fuel cells. There are even prototypes of aircraft powered by hydrogen that make it into the news and excite the industry. For example, a few months ago, CNN reported that with the hydrogen-powered HY4 plane, “The dream of sustainable air travel is now one step closer to reality, after a team of researchers in Germany flew a plane that emits nothing but water vapor into the atmosphere.” Even giant oil companies like Shell, who realize they are in the business of making energy available to society, no matter where it comes from, are turning their sights to hydrogen’s “massive potential” as their CEO, Ben Van Beurden, declared in Davos last month (see our article from last week).

While the Mirai vehicle, the hydrogen urban buses, and the HY4 aircraft represent a tiny portion of the world’s transportation (and can still be considered niche applications), the hydrogen genie is out of the bottle. Entrepreneurs in startups and large corporations around the world are working on the technology necessary to make hydrogen energy mainstream. One of these promising technologies is Hydrogen 2.0, which aims to make hydrogen fuel available anywhere, 24/7, to power applications that can range from cars to data centers and electric utilities.

Envisioning a World with Abundant Hydrogen Made Available

Envisioning a world where hydrogen energy plays a major role is not hard to do. On the one hand, technological progress in hydrogen production and applications brings us closer than ever to realizing this vision. On the other, the demand for sustainable energy sources makes small and large players in the industry recognize the benefits of using such a clean and sustainable fuel.

When hydrogen abundance finally makes its way to becoming a major player in society’s energy mix (alongside solar, wind and fossil fuels), it will help us to actualize a more sustainable world. It will also enable millions of people, who have no electricity today, to power their everyday lives more easily with clean energy made available through distributed systems, such as Hydrogen 2.0.

Most importantly, a world powered by abundant hydrogen made available would enable us to make no compromises between economic progress and a healthy planet. This energy source can help lead the way in limiting CO2 emissions to the levels already committed in the Paris Agreement by 197 countries last year. Abundance of energy, life, and progress is what hydrogen energy can bring to the world if the current technological pace keeps moving us forward to that future.

 

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Stay in the know.

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.

 
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