The road to greener hydrogen

Whether hydrogen fuel holds the key to delivering widespread renewable power remains under heavy debate. What cannot be argued is the sheer investment that backers are putting into the energy source – as much as €470bn by 2050. Mats W. Lundberg, head of sustainability at Sandvik, examines the hydrogen roadmap.

Currently, around 96% of hydrogen is generated from fossil fuels. The gas is predominantly produced by reforming methane, which creates CO2. Carbon capture and storage can make this production method more sustainable, but that’s also still under development.

Concentrating on where hydrogen is right now could make anyone uncertain about its future. So instead, let’s consider where hydrogen could be and what it will take to get there.

Green, grey, and blue

Hydrogen produced using fossil fuels is just one type of hydrogen – the grey variety. The three types of hydrogen refer to the different ways that it can be produced. Blue hydrogen is also made using fossil fuels, but carbon capture technologies at hydrogen plants prevent CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Green hydrogen is the end goal for hydrogen producers, as it produces zero carbon emissions. This is because it is produced through electrolysis that’s powered by renewable resources such as offshore wind. While this produces CO2, it doesn’t add any new carbon into the biosphere, and could be combined with carbon capture and storage.

Currently, producing grey hydrogen is the cheapest option and estimated costs are around €1.5/kg for countries in the EU. However, there are drawbacks to grey hydrogen’s lower rate as CO2 emissions carry an increasing cost. The price of CO2 ranges from €20-€25/tonne, meaning that CO2 could add almost €0.50 to the price of a kilo of hydrogen, making the cost-efficiency of grey hydrogen unsustainable.

A scale-up of electrolysis could boost the feasibility of green hydrogen, increasing both its availability and cost-efficiency.

Countries across the globe are focusing on green hydrogen production. France has set a 10% target for green hydrogen use in industry by 2022 and the UK Government has revealed £350m worth of funding to help decarbonise industry, including dedicated funding for green hydrogen.

The bigger picture

Another reason why sceptics may underestimate hydrogen is because they do not realise its full potential. Hydrogen could certainly replace gas to fuel our vehicles and heat our homes – but those applications are drops in an ocean of possibility.

When green hydrogen takes off, it could decarbonise industries that already rely on hydrogen. Today, around 70 million tonnes of hydrogen are produced globally, used across sectors including petrochemicals, solar panels, and glass manufacturing.

Selling green hydrogen into these industries, especially as its cost reduces, would automatically make them more sustainable without needing to change one of their core raw materials.

Powering the future

Green hydrogen will be critical for difficult-to-decarbonise industries, such as cement, steel, and glass production. For heating and powering buildings and industry, hydrogen can make use of existing assets. For buildings in particular, low concentrations of green hydrogen could be blended into public natural gas networks without any infrastructure upgrades.

Most renewables have low operating costs, meaning they have to be “always on” to be efficient, regardless of electricity demand. This means that wind turbine blades will keep turning, even if the grid doesn’t require their energy. In fact, many countries experience days where electricity prices reach negative levels due to a surplus in wind and solar supply.

The surplus of renewable energy can be used to power electrolysis, which makes use of otherwise wasted renewable energy and means that renewable operators can profit from energy that would have been a loss.

The infrastructure to build this hydrogen economy is already out there, although some investment into existing assets will still be required. Materials specialists will play a part in developing hydrogen’s infrastructure.

Hydrogen scepticism is understandable, especially when we consider our reliance on grey hydrogen. However, it’s important to recognise that today’s hydrogen is not the hydrogen of the future.

New investments and developments are constantly being made, and the steps taken towards hydrogen’s decarbonisation today will certainly impact its green future.