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Hydrogen - the fuel of the future?

Updated: Apr 5, 2022


Every now and then, while perusing the contents of a newspaper, you may stumble across an article that contains the words “hydrogen fuel”. You may know a little about this topic already and if you don’t: There’s this idea that hydrogen can be used as a new climate-friendly fuel, instead of fossil fuels, like oil. “Ok”, you may think to yourself, “that's neat, but whatever...”. But wait! This presents a great opportunity for a potential investment. Not to mention the effect of the elimination of fossil fuels! “But what about electric cars?”, you may ask.” They already do that”. Well, I’m going to tell you about some problems with electric cars that have a hydrogen solution. Just know that all things that sound too good to be true have some sort of a catch…


When you thing about a “carbon-neutral future”, you’ll probably think about either the words “electric” or “renewable energy” or both. And there is also some truth to the fact that those two things are vital for being carbon-neutral. But we have to do it differently. We need to use more renewable energy and we have to think about how we use electricity. Let me explain:


Electric cars - the hidden problems

If done right, electric cars are vital to becoming carbon neutral. And with if done right, I mean if we start to use renewable energy to power them. We’re still working towards that, but even then, there are very annoying problems that take away from electric cars original “charm”.


If you have an electric car, you’ll know this pain: Charging it. They take SO LONG to charge, whereas combustion-engine cars just take 3 minutes to fill and not to charge. This is because they combust in your car. The energy is inside them and set free in the car, while with electric cars, you’re just pouring pure electricity into your car. Even worse, you don’t seem to be able to drive that far on one charge. Also (you’ll understand this if you’ve ever neglected to use your phone for prolonged periods of time), the electricity slowly but surely drains out of the car over time. In combustion engine cars, the fuel just stays there until you drive your car again. All of these problems can make electric cars / their batteries seem fairly inefficient. Is there a way that we can get the good of both worlds: EVs and fossil fuels? Turns out, there is!


Hydrogen – the solution to inefficient electricity

Hydrogen is the first element on the periodic table and is widely viewed as a potential solution to Lithium-ion batteries. Like Fossil-fuels, they just have to be poured into a car to work – no charging required. Hydrogen also doesn’t run out gradually and can be a great storage method for renewable energy. Here’s how to make it happen:


Since hydrogen (H on the periodic table) is a highly reactive molecule, it can only be found in combination with other compounds. One of those is… water (H2O)! In case you haven’t noticed, the planet is full of it. Green hydrogen is the result of separating water into a hydrogen molecule and oxygen (H2O  H2 and O). This is done using a process called electrolysis. Electrolysis is the process of using an electrolyser to split a compound into its base elements using electricity. Note that this production method is only green if the electricity used in electrolysis originates from renewable energy sources. You need a lot of energy to make this happen though and we still rely heavily on fossil fuels to get such amounts of energy. This is why green hydrogen still needs to catch up and is barley used today.


The hydrogen rainbow

When categorising hydrogen-production methods, experts divide them into:

  • Grey and brown (or black)

    • These types of hydrogen production use fossil fuels and are the most common way hydrogen is produced today (Gasification / Steam methane reformation and not electrolysis). About 96% of all hydrogen is produced using these methods.

  • Blue

    • This type of hydrogen doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, but uses carbon-capture and storage technology. So technically, it does emit greenhouse gases, but it is stored and won’t damage the planet.

    • This type of production has been subject to criticism though and has to be explored further in order to be useful, efficient and truly less harmful than fossil fuels. For now, though, its future remains bleak and is often overshadowed by…

  • …Green hydrogen

    • As stated above, this method – if done correctly – is a way to get hydrogen by using renewable energy.

    • It’s also only 4% of how hydrogen is produced nowadays

So, as you can see, we still need to progress a lot if we want to produce hydrogen without using fossil fuels. First, though, let’s look at how hydrogen actually works.


Hydrogen – how it works and its uses

When you actually have pure hydrogen, you need to convert it to electricity. This is done using fuel cell stacks. This device extracts the electrons of the hydrogen molecules using a catalyst which is made from expensive metal (like platinum). The remaining hydrogen now reacts with oxygen to create the by-product of the fuel cell stack: Water. This means that while fossil fuels create toxic / greenhouse gases, hydrogens by-product is just… water. This makes hydrogen a great energy carrier and thus a great way to store energy. Hydrogen is also better at storing more electricity in smaller volumes than Lithium-Ion-Batteries.


Green Hydrogen is thus of use for a variety of sectors, such as the industrial and transportation sector. It can also be used to heat our homes. Hydrogen is also great for storing renewable energy that would otherwise be curtailed. What that means is that the energy market has to produce electricity according to the demand – like any other market. This means that while we could produce energy 24/7, it isn’t happening because people don’t need that much energy. And storing it in Lithium-Ion batteries is inefficient because of how long these batteries last, how many of them you need and the fact that they can’t store energy for as long as hydrogen can.

Until we get to that point though – where green hydrogen is widely used – a few things have to change.


The problems with hydrogen

There are a couple of problems with hydrogen and most of them have something to do with the fact that the world isn’t really prepared for hydrogen yet. What that means is that there is an overall lack of infrastructure and the materials used to produce hydrogen are still expensive. If hydrogen does actually have a visible future and manufacturers are able to see that, costs will inevitably come down. For now, though, they’re still up there. But still, let’s look at what exactly is so problematic:

  • Infrastructure

    • There is very little infrastructure in place to support hydrogen cars and currently, it doesn’t make any sense to build it – at least not for manufacturers. It’s easier to just build gas stations or charging stations but introducing new hydrogen fuelling stations are way more expensive just because of how scarce hydrogen production for that purpose is.

  • Electrolysis / Fossil fuel methods

    • Hydrogen has to be green for a carbon neutral future and the only way to do that is with electrolysis. This requires loads of energy though and currently the majority of hydrogen production just uses fossil fuel. This has to change.

  • Fuel cell stacks

    • The material used to make fuel cell stacks is expensive. This is largely due to the fact that the market hasn’t isn’t set up for the demand of hydrogen fuel cell stacks, because: There is very little demand as of now. When business owners see the demand, they will increase production of materials / R&D and the price will sink because of the adjusted business policy.


Other cons to hydrogen include how we transport it and – one of the biggest problems with hydrogen – it’s flammability. Hydrogen is extremely flammable and if we want to use it we’ve got to make sure that it’s safe if there’s a car crash, so that we don’t, you know, burn alive… The risk of hydrogen igniting in cars is not that high and there are experts confirming that. But still, there’s a risk…


Is hydrogen fuel the future?

I would have to say: yes. Most of the problems surrounding hydrogen seem to be problems that time, research and funding can solve in combination. Once hydrogen really “kicks off” in its technology, business owners will see that and infrastructure will increase. Hydrogen has been “pushed aside” because of EVs and I’m confident that the hype and research that would have belonged to hydrogen fuel (had EVs not intervened) will catch up. Concerning the “green part”, people will advocate for hydrogen more once they know for sure that it comes from renewable energy, which is an incentive for business owners to use more green power for its production.


Investment opportunity

What I’ve said above obviously means that a great opportunity for a potential investment presents itself: Hydrogen still has to be researched and advocated for, which is why buying stock in such a company now could mean investing in the next Tesla.


Conclusion

Hydrogen solves a lot of the problems that fossil fuels and EVs have. Given a bit more time and research, hydrogen could be the next big widely used fuel.

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