• Everything You Need to Know About Hydrogen Fuel

Measurement and Testing

Everything You Need to Know About Hydrogen Fuel

Apr 08 2022

Light, energy-dense and easy to store, hydrogen is considered the fuel of the future. The element produces no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and with the right production techniques, has the potential for a zero-carbon footprint. Many experts maintain a hydrogen economy is the solution to the climate and energy crisis, with governments around the world channelling cash into the development of new technologies and infrastructure.

Want to know more about hydrogen fuel? Read on as we cover everything you need to know about hydrogen fuel, including where it comes from, how it’s produced and what’s next for the industry.

What is hydrogen?

Structurally speaking, hydrogen is one of the simplest elements on the periodic table. A single hydrogen atom has just one proton and electron, compared to other elements such as oxygen, which has eight protons and electrons. To compare, Uranium-235 is one of the most complex elements, with 92 protons, 92 electrons and 143 neutrons per atom.

Not only is hydrogen simple, it’s also the most abundant elements in the universe. It accounts for around 73% of all matter, with helium making up an additional 25%. All other elements represent just 2% of matter, making hydrogen the clear leader.

The sun is one of the most visible examples of hydrogen, made up of around 92% hydrogen. Helium gases make up the remaining 8% and are produced when nuclear fusion transforms hydrogen into helium. It’s this nuclear fusion process that creates the intense heat and light emitted from the sun.

The origins of hydrogen fuel

While hydrogen is touted as the fuel of the future, humans have been harnessing the power of the chemical element for more than 200 years. Hydrogen was used to power some of the first internal combustion engines and formed the backbone of the modern refining industry.

Where does hydrogen come from for fuel?

While hydrogen makes up around 73% of universal matter, harnessing its energy-generating properties is a complex process. Hydrogen does occur naturally on Earth, though only in compound form. For example, hydrogen combines with water to form H20. Hydrogen is also abundant in carbons, including petroleum, coal and natural gas. These are known as hydrocarbons and are used to produce most of the world’s hydrogen.

To isolate hydrogen from and use it to generate energy, it must be synthesised. Of all the fossil fuels used to create hydrogen, natural gas is the most widely used. It’s a primary source of hydrogen production, with the latest research from the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University revealing 76% of global hydrogen is produced from natural gas using Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology. Coal gasification is used to produce around 22% of hydrogen, while just 2% is generated using electrolysis.  

While natural gas, coal and oil are currently the main sources used to produce hydrogen, new technologies are helping to establish electrolysis as a key source. Pilot projects are also exploring the use of landfill gas, wastewater and biomass as eco-friendly hydrogen production sources.

The fuel of the future

More than just an efficient source of energy, hydrogen has the potential to step up as a zero-carbon fuel. When sustainably sourced, hydrogen boasts incredible environmental credentials. Below, we list some of the unique characteristics that have won hydrogen its ‘fuel of the future’ reputation.

  • 100 % sustainable

When synthesised using sustainable techniques, hydrogen emits no carbon or greenhouse gasses during production or combustion.

  • Easy to store and transport

Unlike other fuel sources, hydrogen is easy to store and transport. When blended with natural gas, it can be transported using existing pipelines and other energy infrastructure.

  • Versatile

Hydrogen is a versatile fuel that can be used to generate electricity for industrial applications, as well as domestic use.

“To reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C), low-carbon hydrogen can play an important role both as a carbon-free fuel and as a feedstock for fuels and products,” reads the report published by the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “Hydrogen use can be versatile: a substitute fuel for industrial heat or chemistry, a feedstock to make synthetic fuels (e.g., ammonia or methanol), and an efficient power technology when converted into electricity with a fuel cell.”

Making the switch to “green hydrogen”

While hydrogen does have a zero carbon footprint when used to generate energy, the synthesisation process isn’t necessarily as clean. Extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels such as natural gas is energy intensive and leaves a mark on the planet. Over the past decade, the concept of “green hydrogen” has emerged as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional hydrogen production techniques. Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis, with solar and wind power used to split water molecules and separate hydrogen (H) from oxygen (O).

The Department of Energy recently received a cash injection of US$100 million to fund hydrogen and fuel cell R&D projects in the USA. The European Union is also backing green hydrogen, with plans to invest US$430 billion in sustainable hydrogen by 2030. This is part of a wider goal to meet Green Deal targets. In the UK, the government has announced a £375 million support package to boost national energy security and slash carbon emissions, with green hydrogen taking centre stage.

“This investment will unlock the enormous potential of hydrogen, advanced nuclear reactors and carbon capture to level up the UK energy landscape and deliver for businesses and households,” says Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Cutting carbon emissions isn’t the only priority, with Kwarteng citing conflict between Russia and the Ukraine as another key driver of the clean energy push. “High gas prices and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine have highlighted the urgent need to produce more of our energy here in the UK.”

Hydrogen fuel sector set to boom

A recent landmark report issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts significant growth for the green hydrogen sector and states “the time is right to tap into hydrogen’s potential to play a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future.” According to the report, green hydrogen is currently “enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum” with an increasing number of countries and governments supporting industry growth.

Key findings include:

  • Using clean hydrogen to address a range of critical energy challenges.
  • Using clean hydrogen to decarbonise a variety of sectors where reducing emissions has proven a challenge, including chemicals, transport and metal production.
  • Improving air quality on a national and international scale. Currently, outdoor air pollution contributes to more than 4 million premature deaths a year globally.
  • Strengthening energy security in the United States and for other countries around the world.
  • Helping the USA and other countries meet international climate goals.

Uses for hydrogen fuel

Not only is hydrogen a clean fuel source but it also generates a huge amount of power. This has made it the fuel of choice for a range of industrial processes, including petroleum refining. It’s also widely used in industries such as fertiliser production and metal manufacturing.

Hydrogen and space exploration

Light and powerful, hydrogen is highly coveted in the space exploration sector. Since the 1950s, NASA has been using liquid hydrogen to propel rockets into outer space. Hydrogen fuel cells are also used to generate power onboard spacecraft.

A new project in Australia is exploring the use of hydrogen as a feedstock for synthetic jet fuel, with the country aiming to target Japan as a key importer. Clean hydrogen featured heavily in the latest federal budget, with AU$300 million allocated to develop the low-emissions technology.

Why don't we use hydrogen as a fuel?

Hydrogen does generate a huge amount of power but due to several obstacles, it hasn’t yet taken off as a common fuel source for vehicles. Safety is a major concern, with the highly flammable nature of hydrogen limiting use. Lack of hydrogen vehicle fuelling station infrastructure has also prevented uptake. The United States operates around 50 hydrogen vehicle fuelling stations, almost all located in California. This deters motorists from investing in hydrogen-powered vehicles and in turn, discourages auto manufacturers from producing hydrogen-powered cars.

New technologies driving the FCV revolution

That said, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) are gaining popularity and riding the coat tails of the EV movement. Similar to EVs, they’re powered by an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. The main difference is that while EV batteries must be recharged using an external power source, FCVs generate their own electricity using a built-in fuel cell. Hydrogen stored in the fuel tank reacts with oxygen to generate electricity, which powers the wheels of the car and emits water and heat as its only by-products. With hydrogen fuel cell technology maturing, global infrastructure growing and the world developing an increasing awareness for the need to slash carbon emissions and make the switch to eco-friendly transport, analysts expect the FCV market to experience rapid growth over the coming years.

The future of hydrogen fuel

Find out more about the hydrogen production industry and how cutting-edge technologies are set to reshape how we use the element in ‘Combination of OFCEAS Spectroscopy and Low Pressure sampling, for Impurities Measurement in Hydrogen Production and Storage’.

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