When we think of carbon emissions, we tend to think of energy and transportation, like the smoke from a factory or the exhaust from a car. But those combined only account for less than half of global carbon emissions. Just like the four horsemen of the apocalypse from the book of revelations, the climate crisis has its 4 horsemen: energy and heating, transportation, agriculture, and industry.
If we’re going to tackle climate change, all 4 “horsemen” must be dealt with. Such diverse problems will no doubt require diverse solutions, but there’s one piece of technology that can help with all of them: Electrolysis to produce Hydrogen gas.
It’s almost amazing just how many problems would become so much easier to solve if we could just find out a more effective way to run an electrical current through water.
Electricity throughout the world accounts for about 25% of carbon emissions.
Wind and solar power have dramatically fallen in prices over the past few years, and some estimates now put them as cheaper than all non-renewable sources of energy over its lifetime. But their popularity has led to a new obstacle, albeit a solvable one: the problem of energy storage.
First off, it shouldn’t surprise you that solar energy and wind aren’t constant sources of energy. We’re going to need ways to store energy if we want to rely on clean energy at all times. But the need for energy storage isn’t some distant concern. We’ve already reached a point where places with excess renewables, and we need energy storage now.
To understand how some places already have excess energy, we first need to understand electricity generation. The grid is supplied with energy in 2 ways: baseload and peak load energy. Baseload energy comes from energy sources that are hard to scale up and down quickly, such as nuclear or coal. Therefore, they are set to generate slightly less energy than the minimum energy required throughout the day. Meanwhile, peak load plants are easier to scale up or down quickly, and thus is used to fill in the gaps. Renewables are typically used as a peak load energy source, but they aren’t terribly adaptable. As a result, during daytime, solar energy + baseload energy actually exceeds the energy used in some places such as California, and that’s how even a relatively small amount of renewable energy can generate excess electricity.
So how exactly can hydrogen fuel store electricity, and why is it preferable to other energy storage systems?
The cleanest form way to produce hydrogen is a process known as electrolysis. By running a current through water, you can split water up into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen fuel can later be run through a fuel cell to generate electricity, giving renewables the same flexibility as any peak load source, all with 0 carbon emissions.
Hydrogen fuel is far less effective than some forms of storage, such as pumped hydro or compressed air, but it has one thing: flexibility. You can set up an electrolysis plant almost anywhere, while pumped storage and compressed air have certain physical requirements. Meanwhile, lithium-ion batteries offers a similar amount of flexibility, but are unable to hold a charge for months on end, which will be required as the sunlight during summer months is stored to power through winter and has a relatively short lifespan (and requires harmful mining practices to mass produce).
Transportation causes 14% of all global emissions.
When we think of renewable ways of transportation, a lot of think about electric cars powered by Lithium-ion batteries. There’s also another option: fuel cell vehicles. In a 2018 survey of 1000 senior automotive executives, 78% said that they believed hydrogen fuel cars would be the future. Compared with Electric Vehicles, Hydrogen fuel cells last longer than lithium-ion batteries, and they can be filled up in the same time it takes to fill up a diesel engine. Having said that, EV’s have their advantages – they’re currently cheaper, and they have a more developed fuelling infrastructure- and that’s why they’re more popular
FCV for the time being. Even so, things are ramping up fast for the FCV world.
But it’s not just with cars. There are other reasons to develop Hydrogen meant for transportation. Because anything a battery can do, a fuel cell can too. But there are places a fuel cell can go that a battery can never follow. For instance, the sky.
Planes require a ridiculous amount of energy to fly, and batteries simply can’t store that much electricity in a reasonable weight. Batteries require over 40 times the weight of diesel for the same amount of electricity, and while that may suffice for smaller planes over short distances, for large commercial aircraft it isn’t happening.
Meanwhile, Hydrogen fuel is not only competitive with diesel from a practical point of view, it in some ways is better. Hydrogen has nearly 3x the same amount of energy as a similar weight of diesel (although is only ¼ as energy-dense by volume). (2) Meanwhile, Hydrogen trains are already in operation in Germany, and hydrogen ships are sailing the seven seas as you read this article.
Agriculture and Manufacturing:
Agriculture and Manufacturing account for nearly half of carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, Hydrogen can’t fix all of this. A lot of the problem lies with cattle. If cattle was a country, it would be number 3 in emissions. There are problems that Hydrogen can’t fix. But Hydrogen can fix one massive source of carbon emissions: Ammonia. Ammonia is used to create fertilizer and is one of the most harmful products to manufacture. One out of every 33 tons of carbon emitted every year comes from the production of this one product.
The chemical formula for ammonia is NH3, meaning that one molecule of Ammonia is made up of 1 atom of Nitrogen and 3 atoms of Hydrogen. Nitrogen gas is easy enough to get, but how do most ammonia plants get the hydrogen?
The answer to that question is why we need to develop a cheaper way to develop hydrogen cleanly. Hydrogen is already produced on a large industrial scale, but the way it’s done is an incredibly harmful method: steam reforming. By burning natural gas, methane is released. By mixing methane with steam, you are left with 2 compounds: H2, or hydrogen gas, and CO2, carbon dioxide.
That’s the reason why we need to develop a better way of creating clean Hydrogen. Hydrogen is already being produced at a massive scale, and it’s being done in an awful way.
Climate change isn’t a simple problem. Before even delving into political pressures, the practical and engineering needed to solve climate change are intense. But there is one area that, if solved, can fix so many of the causes of carbon emissions, from electricity to transportation, to agriculture. And that one is has a simple name: Hydrogen production.
Jiang Yi (Roy) He
Roy is a student keen on environmental sciences. He believes that technology is our last, best hope of stemming the climate crisis. He hopes he can build a career in the research, production, and deployment of Hydrogen fuel. “If a man were to figure out how to harness the power of Hydrogen Fuel, he will be richer than Rockefeller himself, and leave a much kinder legacy.”