Hydrogen Fuel for Today
In a sort of roundabout way, hydrogen energy is already the cheapest, most abundant and accessible form of energy humans use– it just so happens to be from the nuclear fusion reaction present in our Sun. Jokes aside, hydrogen is a rapidly growing area for investment from government and VC funding alike. But will hydrogen be the secret ingredient for the green energy revolution, or is it a stop along the way? Like everywhere else, context is key.
How are we Getting Our Hands on Hydrogen?
A quick physics lesson: hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table with an atomic number of one. It has one electron and a very simple nucleus consisting of one proton and no neutrons. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it mostly just hangs out in a gaseous state in space. However, here on Earth, Hydrogen gas, under standard conditions, is light enough to regularly escape our atmosphere. Going back to its singular electron, it bonds with everything and is a fundamental building block for almost every organic compound.
While it is possible to collect free hydrogen in space, such as for the Bussard Ramjet, it isn’t nearly abundant enough to reliably do so for use here on earth (least of all with the “import” costs tacked on). The story is similar here on Earth– there is a very small amount of hydrogen present in the air we breathe, but it isn’t as easy as digging a hole and pulling it out of a mine. So where does that leave us? We have to make it, and it’s not an easy task.
The leading methods for hydrogen extraction are electrolysis, steam reforming and biomass conversion. Steam reforming is the current leading method of hydrogen extraction, and it involves exposing methane (or another hydrocarbon) to superheated steam. The process is energy-intensive and produces both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as byproducts, on top of utilizing a non-renewable resource. This process, alongside partial oxidation, creates “gray hydrogen” which still has an impact on the environment.
Truly green hydrogen comes from electrolysis and biomass conversion. Electrolysis involves pushing an electric current through water and an electrolyte to break it down into its constituent parts. Again, this process is energy-demanding to produce hydrogen at volume, and the US Department of Energy says that most of the grid is unfit to serve this endeavor. The Hydrogen Energy Earthshot is a public fund aimed to drive the cost of producing clean and green hydrogen down to $1 per kilogram.
On the other hand, biomass conversion is a natural process that utilizes fermentation to break down complex hydrocarbons into their constituent parts. This process is slower and yields lower than other methods, however, it’s an easier to maintain process. Once the microorganisms get to work, the biggest problem becomes keeping them fed. Some feedstocks being considered are agricultural waste from the production of corn or rice, and municipal solid waste or wastewater.
Where is the Hydrogen Going to Go?
JDI isn’t sitting on some secret crystal ball, but our guess is that hydrogen’s biggest impact will be on vehicles. One of the biggest challenges facing electric vehicle manufacturers is the gasoline fueling experience compared to charging. Refueling a car currently is incredibly easy: you stop at a station, and a few minutes later you’re back on the road. With gas prices at their current point, there’s even a chance you spend more time looking for a better deal than filling up. Recharging your car is a difficult-to-build consumer habit, and one that carries a terrifying downside: running out of juice. Sometimes called range anxiety, it is a top of mind consumer concern– next to the hefty price tag EVs carry. Hydrogen refueling, as either a pressurized gas or supercooled liquid, would likely feel very similar to putting gas in your car.
Beyond the roads, hydrogen is currently being explored as a fuel source for both boats and planes. Air travel and ships both account for about 3% each for global emissions. Planes run on kerosene, while cargo ships rely on bunker fuel: both produce more CO2 emissions than traditional gasoline. Global shipping companies have set goals for themselves to be carbon neutral by 2050– a daunting task when most ships burn multiple liters of fuel per second.
Geothermal, solar, hydroelectric and wind are all more likely going to keep our homes powered in the future. However, hydrogen does have a role to play in getting us off of methane gas. With minimal modifications, our current infrastructure for generating power from turbines can use a mixture of methane and hydrogen– up to an 80–20 split. It will take time for energy production to switch from legacy systems to more renewable ones, and green hydrogen can help ease both the impact on our environment and the transition process.