The Future of Hydrogen

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This article provides a synopsis on the future of Hydrogen as an energy resource.

The Future of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen gas is the smallest and lightest of all molecules. When released, it quickly rises to the upper atmosphere and dissipates, leaving virtually no hydrogen gas on the Earth’s surface. There is effectively no natural hydrogen gas resource on Earth. Because hydrogen gas must be manufactured from other sources (common lingo = feedstock) that contain hydrogen compounds, it is considered to be an energy carrier, like electricity, rather than a primary energy resource.

Future with Hydrogen will require development of production, transmission, distribution, and dispensing infrastructure.

Analysis

PRODUCTION

The production of hydrogen using primary energy sources or electricity necessarily engenders some loss of energy content. This situation is typical of all energy transformation processes, including the generation of electricity from fossil fuels, where the electricity produced contains only 33 to 55 percent of the energy content of the oil, natural gas, or coal input to generation. Despite these transformation losses, electricity has been the fastest-growing source of energy in end-use applications in the world over the past 50 years, reflecting its highly desirable characteristics, which include flexibility, efficiency, and absence of pollution at the point of end use, as well as the availability of a wide range of alternative generation technologies. Hydrogen’s future success as an energy carrier is likely to rely on its ability to demonstrate similar or superior attributes.

Currently, the main sources of hydrogen are hydrocarbon feed stocks such as natural gas, coal, and petroleum; however, some of those feed stocks also produce CO2. Thus, to provide overall emission savings, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be mitigated during hydrogen production through CCS (carbon capture & sequestration) or similar technology.

Hydrogen can also be produced from cellulosic biomass, through a process much like coal gasification, to produce synthesis gas (also called syngas) that is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, from which the hydrogen can be removed and purified.

Producers and consumers of hydrogen include ammonia plants, methanol production facilities, brine electrolysis facilities that produce chlorine, hydrogen and bleach, and other smaller facilities. Ammonia and methanol facilities have experienced steady closures or declining production since 2000 because of steadily increasing natural gas prices.

Although future breakthroughs in other hydrogen production technologies, such as nuclear thermochemical processes, could substantially lower life-cycle emissions, and presumably costs, they still need considerable research and development (R&D) before widespread adoption.

STORAGE & DELIVERY

If we consider hydrogen driven vehicles, the hydrogen storage and delivery medium must function well under a wide range of temperatures, provide a range of at least 300 miles between fill-ups, allow rapid fill-ups, and last for at least 3 to 5 years without the need for replacement of the storage medium. Hydrogen-based vehicles may be restricted from traveling over bridges and through tunnels until rigorous safety tests by independent experts certify that vehicle accidents in bridges and tunnels will be at least as safe as accidents of comparable conventional vehicles. Virtually all bridge and tunnel authorities in most countries require special treatment of vehicles containing potentially explosive chemicals.

For vehicles, metal hydride storage media, carbon nanotube systems, and other novel storage systems are being considered but there are no economical advanced storage media that currently satisfy all the requirements, and it is uncertain whether or when the needed successes will occur. The current carbon fiber tanks that have pressurized hydrogen in it, take up a large space in the trunk, and the cost of carbon fiber tank is enormous compared to the cheap metal storage tank used for gasoline. Hydrogen could also be stored in liquid form, but requires a temperature of -423 degrees Fahrenheit, which is very expensive and the volume required for the tank in the trunk goes up by 4 times.

Lastly the fuel cell requires platinum, as a catalyst. A metal that is 30 times rarer than gold and very difficult to mine & extract. The price escalation of platinum can easily make the fuel cell non-viable.

DISTRIBUTION

The most feasible method right now is hydrogen delivered through pipelines from a central production facility just like the gas pipelines. Smaller local production & distribution is far more expensive. Hydrogen pipelines are likely to have a smaller diameter than natural gas pipelines, but they also are likely to require more expensive steel alloys to avoid embrittlement and other issues, unless alternatives are developed. The cost of whole new pipelines infrastructure has to be considered.

Feasibility of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV):

1 kilogram of hydrogen contains about the same energy as a gallon of gasoline.

One way to look at feasibility of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) driven car is: If a conventional car is giving 34-40 miles per gallon, a Hydrogen car must produce 95 miles per gallon to be economically feasible.

But it is important to note that Hydrogen FCVs are facing stiff competition from all-electric vehicles and PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles). There is currently only one major challenge that remains for PHEVs and all electric vehicles to be commercialized: the development of a durable, safe, reliable, and relatively light-weight set of batteries that do not produce too much heat and can safely power the LDV (light duty vehicles) for about 40 miles under normal driving conditions. In contrast, Hydrogen FCVs have enormous challenges that have not even been tested in the real world scenario.

Hydrogen storage costs for fuel cells must fall to about $2 per kilowatt from their currently estimated price of $8 per kilowatt for it to become economical.

The total cost of all the fuel cell components, including fuel stacks, catalyst, and balance of system, must fall to $30 per kilowatt as compared with current cost estimates of $3,625 to $4,500 per kilowatt for production in small numbers.

The policies may have to include financial incentives and guarantees that currently are unspecified, as well as safety regulations for the transportation of hydrogen through tunnels and on bridges.

An example is Honda Motor Company which has introduced 200 fuel cell hybrid cars, the FCX Clarity. It uses a 100-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system, leased at $600 per month for 3-year leases in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Honda has stated that the lease rate does not fully cover the cost of the vehicle.

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