A zero-emission substance, the combustion of which would produce water and energy – sounds like a Utopian environmentalist’s dream come true. Such a substance does exist in our very own world and it is none other than Hydrogen. It exists abundantly on earth as a sub-component of water and hydrocarbons but rarely occurs in its pure form i.e. H2. This substance is inherently a gas that’s highly combustible but at the same time, very potent and efficient as a fuel.
If obtained and used efficiently, it could solve a big portion of the energy issues of the planet. Although it is already in use in the various forms, the scale and efficiency of its use is not yet what it should be. Currently, hydrogen is used in fuel cells for vehicles, internal combustion engines and as liquid propellant fuel for spacecraft.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Currently, the most widespread use of hydrogen is in the form of fuel cells. These cells are used in electric vehicles. They are able to convert chemical energy of H2 to electrical energy. The resulting by products of this conversion is seen in the form of water (often steam) and heat which by fuel standards are the least harmful of all emissions.
These fuel cells are further used to power motors within the new-age electric vehicles and other machinery. Using hydrogen-based fuel cells for powering electric vehicles is far more efficient than any other kind of fuel known to mankind today.
The H2 Reality: Far From Perfect
Despite its immense potential, hydrogen hasn’t come up as the zero-emission fuel that it could be. Even now, it’s far from being the ideal ‘fuel of the future’ that it was projected as. Here’s why:
- Since Hydrogen is not available in its pure form, it needs to be obtained from other substances such as water or methane which requires energy and is thus not a very affordable or simple solution.
- The most efficient method for the production of hydrogen (i.e. electrolysis of water) is extremely expensive.
- Even the cheapest method for hydrogen production requires building high-cost plants which again raises viability issues.
- Most of the H2 produced today comes from fossil fuels (precisely by reformation of methane) which defeats the whole purpose of using hydrogen in the first place.
- Its low ignition energy, high combustion energy and easy leakage makes it an extremely dangerous fuel to work with.
- Once ready, hydrogen fuel cells can be quite expensive since their manufacturing requires costly materials such as platinum.
All these are some serious issues holding back hydrogen’s massive potentials as a fuel. But that only provides innovators more reasons to come up with better technologies.
- Eco-Friendly Production: Most fuels in use today leave behind massive carbon footprints. Making hydrogen an apt alternative to fossil fuels would require extensive research and technological development. Such R&D would have to focus on making H2 production independent of fossil fuels and cheaper as well. Also, researchers would have to find ways to make fuel cells more affordable.
- Ease of Use: Renewable sources of energy have great ecological validity but none of them can compete with fossil fuels when it comes to ease of use. Most part of modern civilization was spent enhancing technology for fossil fuel usage. As a result, mankind is now heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Hydrogen is not only difficult to incorporate for everyday use but hazardous as well. Innovators will have to come up with tech that would make H2 much easier and safer for use.
- Range of Use: To be a common man’s fuel, hydrogen would not only have to be affordable but also diverse in its usage. Currently, hydrogen is used for rocket propellers, internal combustion engines and fuel cells in electric cars/vehicles – all of which are not that common. A popular fuel would be the one that could provide for use cases such as the electricity needs of a household or farm, power generation for housing/offices/industries and fuel for public transport systems.
Hydrogen as a fuel can be a saviour but not unless we achieve the technological milestones required to convert it into a more practical and affordable alternative to fossil fuels. Thankfully, some developments (such as wind electrolysis) are taking place in this direction.
Future of Hydrogen: Prerequisites for a Greener Fuel
For hydrogen to take a more mainstream role as a fuel in the future, researchers and policy makers will have to come together to formulate a well-strategized approach. Here are a few pointers in the same:
- Create more R&D opportunities preferably with international collaboration.
- Explore possibilities of producing hydrogen through new, lesser known ways.
- Amend policies in such a way to assist R&D, production, commercialization of hydrogen.
- Outline and develop the required infrastructure for hydrogen production.
- Make hydrogen fuel technologies more lucrative for investors in the long term.
- Develop new, improved ways of making water electrolysis more cost-effective.
- Find ways to incorporate hydrogen fuel cells in more common use cases such as household appliances, lighting devices and more.
- Make hydrogen more compatible for public transport systems with the help of improvement in automotive technology.
- Encourage commercial use of hydrogen as a fuel by increasing supply and reducing cost.
With the right approach, hydrogen could someday replace fossil fuels as the popular fuel and go on to become the fuel that was meant to be. The road to such a future is rocky but promising indeed.