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The Possibilities of Hydrogen Fuel as the Fuel of the Future

by kirkcoburn
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The prospect of hydrogen as a fuel source is on the rise. Looking into the future, hydrogen may very well challenge other popular fuel sources for dominance. Even now, companies are exploring different methods of hydrogen production, new applications, and how to build energy infrastructures around hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen Fuel in the Present

Since hydrogen fuel is clean and only produces water when consumed in a fuel cell, there’s a lot of interest in the future of the fuel in terms of sustainability and cost reduction.

Currently, the most common way of producing hydrogen as a storage carrier for energy is through thermal processes like natural gas processing. Many of these processes, such as gasified coal and natural gas reforming, aren’t terribly sustainable, though some biomass and renewable liquid fuel processes exist.

The other common option today (besides thermal processes) is the electrolytic process, where water is separated into oxygen and hydrogen.

Future Options

According to Energy.gov, some of the most promising energy types for the future include solar-driven processes like photobiological, photoelectrochemical, and solar thermochemical energy. Besides that, biological processes use microbes like bacteria or microalgae to produce viable hydrogen.

Hydrogen Fuel Developments to Watch

So-called “green hydrogen” tech that’s focused on achieving a global carbon-neutral plan is the ideal in the current state of things. “Blue hydrogen,” or hydrogen made from natural gas — as well as gray hydrogen made from oil, coal, and other fossil fuels — are still currently the norm. Also, they are still cheaper than green hydrogen that’s often made from water using processes like electrolysis.

However, there’s some evidence to suggest that the cost of green hydrogen will fall by nearly two-thirds by 2040, so this is definitely a development worth keeping an eye on.

Challenging Fossil Fuels in Some Markets

Some estimates say the cost of hydrogen fuel production will be as low as fossil-fueled-based hydrogen by 2030 in at least some markets, like the one in Germany. In fact, according to Wood Mackenzie, research indicates that the 2020s may be the decade when hydrogen becomes more prominent.

It’s still a bit of a mountain to climb, given the current economic gap between green hydrogen and the blue and gray kinds. But governments like the ones in the EU are optimistic. Their current target is getting a 40-gigawatt electrolyzer open. They are also trying to encourage other areas like in North Africa to open 40-gigawatt electrolyzers.

There is also some hope, according to Green Tech, that even blue hydrogen can be made more sustainable by using carbon capture technology to decarbonize gas. The idea is to use this as a bridge to a bridge, essentially, until green hydrogen is fully ready to go.

Example: Hyundai

Recently, Hyundai announced that it was expanding hydrogen fuel cell availability in California. However, this is likely only the beginning. The Hyundai Nexo is a fuel-cell crossover that’s currently only in California. There’s no doubt that the expansion of hydrogen as a fuel isn’t moving at a breakneck pace within this market. Still, it is a demonstration that expansion is happening in sectors like consumer vehicles.

In other words, it’s one of many trends happening across many sectors that involve hydrogen as a fuel source. It’s still in the early stages of development, of course, but this could be an example of how an oak grows from a single acorn.

Infrastructure Progress

There have been several announcements lately about hydrogen-based energy programs happening across Europe and Asia with considerable fervor. This is also happening in the United States a bit more quietly.

For example, the EU has its Hydrogen Strategy. It’s working towards creating a hydrogen market that spans eastern Europe and northern Africa. Parts of Asia, such as in the northeast, are making similar moves to prepare for a hydrogen-based future. For example, Japan is highly interested in importing blue hydrogen from the Middle East.

The United States, on the other hand, is taking a bit of a slower approach. They don’t have quite as much of an immediate, dramatic plan. This isn’t to say that they aren’t planning at all, however. The US is instead looking down the road for when the tech is more fully developed for hydrogen fuel. The phrase being used here is the hydrogen economy.

The Importance of Infrastructure to Support Future Fuel Tech

It isn’t as if hydrogen fuel can explode everywhere overnight. In order to ensure adoption, other pieces often have to be in place first. Cars need accessible gas stations throughout the country first. They also need roads to connect them before the car can become a truly market-penetrating vehicle for long trips across the continent.

Going along with this, the US Department of Energy has launched its H2@Scale Program, which will take a few years to fully mature. It began years ago, and it’s starting to show growth. For example, for the past year, the program has added over $100 million in the form of grants to at least 50 different projects.

These include projects like six ongoing efforts focused on hydrogen fuel cell tech and manufacturing heavy cells that could aid in making more energy-efficient and sustainable trucks. There’s also increased government research into hydrogen fuel that can affect car companies and their goals, like Hyundai or American equivalents.

The Science Connected to Hydrogen Fuel

Many different technologies work together in the quest to develop hydrogen fuel. For example, one American effort is developing carbon fiber. Manufacturers could use that fiber to create proper hydrogen storage tanks (an area that I have invested). Some of the projects also involve using hydrogen fuels for data centers and even at ports.

This kind of infrastructure improvement will be vital in embracing a hydrogen future that is to come. After all, when the infrastructure and societal acceptance is there, sustainable hydrogen fuel, especially the green kind, can be used in just about any application, including for boats and similar means of transportation.

Yet another project concerns itself with using hydrogen to produce “green steel,” or sustainable steel. This demonstrates how green hydrogen fuel can create something of a positive feedback loop.

Steel production can often be a costly process. It is also notorious for not being sustainable. Using greener methods for producing hydrogen fuel can then fuel methods for creating sustainable steel. The steel can deliver more sustainable goods like vessels or containers. This, in turn, will circle back to the beginning, where it may even help push green hydrogen production again.

After all, transportation technology is often an important part of fuel production.

All of this is to say that the possibilities for hydrogen fuel are numerous at this point. They could affect many different aspects of the future, starting with transportation and going far beyond that.

(NOTE: I am speaking about possibilities…economics need to work before this will become a viable industry).

Other Considerations for the H2 Initiative

The H2 Scale program is ongoing, and it includes a number of interesting modes for discovery. This includes cooperative agreements with labs, as the government initiative works with private companies in the industry. Apparently, there are more than 25 different initiatives that are working this way right now. These projects are prioritizing fuel cell electric vehicle breakthroughs and hydrogen blending in natural gas pipelines.

These technologies are going to starting breaking ground in the near future, possibly in ways that make a big difference in terms of how basic transportation is done. Everyone is talking about what the long-term viability of hydrogen fuel is going to be in terms of powering electric vehicles in the future. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there’s real progress moving in that direction. It may need to merely hit a certain threshold before it is then obvious to everyone.

Hydrogen Fuel Startups

One of the biggest startups in this field is Nikola’s Fuel. They had $2.5 billion in funding. Their batteries are aimed at long-haul trucks like the ones they make themselves, called Nikola One. Now we have companies with both halves of his name — Nikola and Tesla.

SGH2 Energy Global is another startup focused on a process that uses extremely hot plasma torches to completely destroy recycled waste products. Hydrogen is the handy byproduct the company can use for many different purposes, including, of course, fuel.

There’s even a hydrogen plane startup called ZeroAvia (full disclosure: we are investors). Their goal is to create zero emissions at the airport using hydrogen fuel cells.

Maritime Applications

Hydrogen fuel can solve energy and pollution problems for land, air, and sea applications.

It’s not just ground or air transportation that is going to expand into hydrogen fuel. There are also programs like the Maritime Fuel Cell Generator Project. This study is one of the first of its kind when it comes to government testing ways to increase energy efficiency in this kind of application.

There’s also a lot of general interest in this space. Many people are interested in finding a way to get zero-emissions. The traditional “bunker fuel” currently used in a lot of vessels is high in pollution. In fact, many countries are putting restrictions on traditional fuel, making the need for hydrogen fuel even more urgent. Auxiliary electricity used for systems like AC and heating can also benefit from hydrogen research. Even boats like cruise ships are considering the switch.

Summing Up the Near Future of Hydrogen Fuel

Overall, there’s a lot happening when it comes to the future of hydrogen fuel. It’s happening in government initiatives. Multiple government projects cover just about every aspect of the topic, from infrastructure development to the very walls of containers for the fuel. It’s happening in various other countries in the world. It’s also happening in private industry as everyone moves towards the possibilities of a hydrogen future that’s maybe more sustainable and economical. Let me know what you think about hydrogen fuel’s future as a viable energy source.

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