We are currently living through uncertain times. With climate change on our doorstep, it is an incentive for us to switch to a cleaner, greener and more sustainable fuel.
Step forward hydrogen, the fuel intended for the future. As a fuel capable for use in cars, homes and even aeroplanes, it is still in relative infancy. But it has been the small-scale and sporadic production of hydrogen for use in cars, households and planes that has shown people that its possibilities are ceaseless.
Fossil fuels have been heavily relied upon over the past century. The burning of these unsustainable fuels has brought remarkable development and opportunities, but it has not been without consequences.
Carbon dioxide (CO2), which has been, and still is relentlessly pumped into our atmosphere, is thought to be the biggest contributor to environmental world climate-change. The depletion of oil reserves is also in a rapid decline, while it has been stated that it will only be a decade from now before world oil production peaks.
This exemplifies the need for a new fuel, one that is abundant, cheap, clean, and by and large, sustainable. It is imperative then that the use of fuels, such as hydrogen, is utilised for the wellbeing of the planet.
Professor Nejat Veziroglu, President of the International Association of Hydrogen Energy, promoted hydrogen’s cause at a conference last year in Brisbane, Australia. Veziroglu said, “Hydrogen does not cause global warming, does not damage the ozone layer, does not cause acid rain or oxygen depletion and does not damage the environment.”
Hydrogen in its natural form is the most abundant element in the universe, forming at least 75% the mass of the universe. It is present in water and in all organic compounds. Hydrogen fuel is earth-friendly as it is completely non-polluting, only water and hot air are its by-products, while the abundance of this gas makes it straightforward for any country to start using it.
A low-carbon future can and must be attained, it is just a case of filling the void between now and when hydrogen’s potential is fully realised.
Hydrogen can be obtained in numerous ways. How it is obtained though, is what’s often termed as either ‘green hydrogen’ or ‘brown hydrogen’.
Getting hold of hydrogen is simple enough, electricity is used to produce hydrogen; electrical currents are passed through water to aid in the separation of hydrogen and oxygen, a process known as electrolysis.
‘Green hydrogen’, as the name suggests, is obtained solely from ecologically sustainable sources of electricity, such as wind, hydroelectric and solar power. A team has also established that hydrogen can be obtained from ocean thermals, following research carried out in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
There has even been an experiment in an effort to convert waste sewage into hydrogen safe for cars. These are all environmentally friendly ways of capturing hydrogen and this highlights the numerous possibilities.
It is when hydrogen is obtained from carbon based fossil fuels though, that makes it unsustainable. This is referred to as ‘brown hydrogen’.
So should hydrogen only be used when it is produced from a renewable source?
This is not a factor according to John Raquet, Managing Director of Spiritus Consulting, who recently remarked, “I believe our industry should focus on the use of hydrogen and the supply mode and not worry about where hydrogen comes from. Does it matter if hydrogen is ‘Brown’ or ‘Green’? Let us resolve that later.”
He goes on to say, “Let’s get the hydrogen highways up and running, let’s get people used to hydrogen and filling their tanks with compressed or liquid hydrogen. So, I urge our industry and alliance partners to strive forward and prove the case that hydrogen really is the answer.”
Although the manufacturing, supply and use of hydrogen will require innovators and investments, this must not remain an obstruction for the future. The lack of information and relevant public awareness on hydrogen and its green capabilities, act as a barrier to the effective development of environmentally sound technologies. So addressing the need for a cleaner alternative can only help but rouse people into action.
Investing, developing & implementing
Huge investment in hydrogen technologies is being implemented in Canada and America. Big corporations, such as Shell, develop business opportunities in hydrogen fuel cells. This shows the ongoing commitment from companies at the forefront of energy supplies.
But Chris de Koning, Global affairs Communication Manager of Shell Hydrogen, is adamant prices of hydrogen will gradually decrease, as he said, “As with any new technology, at the moment it is way too expensive. But we know that if we go to mass production, the costs will go down and eventually we can compete with ordinary fuel.”
Energy expert David Greene believes technology alone isn’t enough and it’s in governmental hands to bring about change. “The problems we’re trying to address are public problems. They’re societal problems. And we need societal action to address those. Just developing the technology alone won’t be good enough. It takes collective action. It takes government action,” he says.
Greene is also thought to believe that hydrogen won’t have a significant impact on the transport system within the next ten years.
However, Shell expects that by 2050, “a large percentage of new cars will be fuel-cell cars”. Hopefully the decline in petroleum and diesel fuelled cars will bring about the rise of hydrogen-powered cars, thus reducing the impact of the carbon footprint on the planet.
“Hydrogen solves the problem of getting the car out of the environmental equation so the car can be for enjoyment, the car is fun,” remarked Chris de Koning.
The automobile and aviation industries are under increased scrutiny, especially at this crucial moment in time. The pursuit of a more practical, cleaner fuel is vital. Cars and planes are without doubt two of the world’s biggest polluters and contribute considerably to greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen energy use today has been implemented as a jet propellant for space travel and, if this is the case, why is it still not being applied to replace kerosene fuel currently used by airliners across the globe?
Boeing has announced that it plans to build and test unmanned hydrogen powered planes. Supposedly the planes will be able to stay in the air for up to one month, depending on altitude. Liquid-hydrogen will fuel the plane.
Boeing has designed the plane so the wings won’t store fuel like most aircraft, leaving the wings to be designed longer, thinner and generally more efficient.
This is by far a breakthrough within the industry - bio-fuel is not deemed sustainable enough to offset carbon emissions, so hydrogen technological advancements are helping the aviation industry negate its polluted image.
Within the car industry, Tokyo, Japan-based Honda is seen to be the innovator of hydrogen-powered cars.
The Honda FCX Clarity, which was made available for consumers this year, was the first hydrogen fuel cell car of its kind in the world. Honda has also recently showcased a concept hydrogen-powered sports car at the 2008 LA Motor Show, named the Honda FC Sport, which incorporates Honda-developed Vertical Flow (V Flow) fuel cell, used in the FCX Clarity sedan.
“The Honda FC Sport explores how to satisfy automotive performance enthusiasts in a world beyond petroleum,” said Dan Bonawitz, Vice President of American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
The sleek looking FC Sport is designed to turn heads and it shows people that hydrogen cars can be just as good as their petrol drinking fathers, while cleaner too.