Hydrogen has long been used across several industries, including the process for converting heavy petroleum extracts into lighter, exploitable forms of fuel. But the objective of turning hydrogen itself into a viable and clean energy source to power vehicles and heat houses is the potential game-changing solution that could lead the way toward a full energy transition in the future. This potential game-changing energy source poses major concern and threat to oil revenue dependent economies.
Hydrogen Fuel as Replacement for Jet Fuel
The first work where hydrogen fuel was used for airplanes was carried out in 1956, with USA flying a B57 bombed Canberra plane using hydrogen fuel, which is pressurized with helium in one of its engines. After B57, the Soviets tested an experimental conversion of Tu-154 aircraft which has one engine operating on hydrogen in 1988. The liquid hydrogen powered engine was tested at heights up to 7000m and accelerated to 900 km / h.
Recently, many hydrogen prototype aircrafts such as Tupolev Tu-155 and the ENFICA-FC Rapid 200-FC were all built using compression and liquefaction storage methods.
In September 2016, the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered four-seat passenger aircraft, HY4, was created, and its first flight was reported in Stuttgart Airport, Germany. This technology allows the fuel cell to convert the hydrogen directly to electricity and the only waste product that comes out of the process is water. In the near future, new technologies in storage and production of hydrogen will be developed and with gradual reduction in cost of production. If cost continued to decline, hydrogen which is one of the cleanest fuels will increasingly be used in the aviation industry.
Hydrogen will play an important role in the de-carbonization of the transport industry. It is expected that fuel cell electric vehicles powered by hydrogen (FCEV) could represent about 3% of new vehicle sales in 2030 (about 4 million vehicles); and would likely increase to about 35% by 2050.
Currently, the leading global FCEV adopters are – Germany, Japan, California, and South Korea. The Hydrogen Council estimated that by 2030, 1 in 12 cars sold in California, Germany, Japan, and South Korea could be powered by hydrogen, and over 350,000 hydrogen trucks could be transporting goods, and thousands of trains and passenger ships could be powered by hydrogen energy.
Additionally, the report held that beyond 2030, hydrogen will increasingly be used to create renewable synthetic fuels to de-carbonize commercial aviation and freight shipping, which are harder to decarbonize using pure hydrogen and fuel cells.
In the transport sector, fuel cell buses are also gaining significant traction due to concerns about local pollution, in particular in Europe, Japan, South Korea, and China. While smaller buses and others with shorter-range requirements will run on batteries, fuel cells will allow larger buses to go longer distances and operate with fewer interruptions. Accordingly, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and China have ambitious plans to deploy thousands of fuel cell buses over the next few years.
Hydrogen Energy as Replacement for Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for Vehicular Transportation
Currently, South Korea has plans to replace 26,000 buses powered by compressed natural gas with hydrogen fuel cell by 2030; Shanghai alone is planning to operate 3,000 hydrogen fuel powered buses by 2020. Hydrogen fuel cells is projected to constitute up to 20% of road vehicles by 2050, and will contribute more than a third of the transport sector carbon dioxide abatement target.
Hydrogen-powered Trains as Replacement for Diesel-powered Trains
Hydrogen-powered trains are an attractive alternative to diesel trains, in particular for non-electrified railways – where roughly 70% of the world’s 200,000 locomotives operate today.
Besides avoiding carbon emissions, hydrogen trains reduce noise and eliminate local emissions such as particulates. Hydrogen-powered trains are already being introduced for light-rail transport and regional railways – such as the trams produced by the China South Rail. Recently, Germany tested some hydrogen-powered trains. Estimates from the Hydrogen Council reveals that by 2030, one in ten trains sold for currently non-electrified railways could be powered by hydrogen; and by 2050, one in five trains running on non-electrified railways or one in ten trains overall could run on fuel cells.
Hydrogen as the future fuel for Freight Shipping
In freight shipping, hydrogen could play a role as feedstock for producing synthetic fuel. Ultimately, synthetic fuels mimic the properties of conventional fossil fuels and are burned in combustion engines.
Those syn-fuels use carbon dioxide and hydrogen to form a closed carbon cycle and are useful in de-carbonizing combustion engines. Thus, in Norway, Viking Cruises is planning to build the world’s first cruise ships powered by liquid hydrogen and fuel cells.
Hydrogen Energy Useful in the Industrial Sector
Hydrogen is viewed as the main option for de-carbonization of industrial processes requiring high heat and/or combustion. Hydrogen can provide de-carbonized high heat for industrial processes.
Accordingly, study estimates reveal that nearly 12% of the global industrial energy demand by 2050 will be met with hydrogen. The projections hold that by 2030, one in ten steel and chemical plants in Europe, North America, and Japan will use hydrogen for low-carbon production.
Hydrogen as Relevant Industry Feedstock
Nearly 55 million tons of hydrogen are currently used as feedstock for refining, fertilizer, and chemical production – these can be de-carbonized through clean production pathways. Other industries, such as methanol and iron production, can replace fossil feedstock with clean hydrogen.
Overall, the use of hydrogen as feedstock could grow from about 55 million tons (8 EJ) to 75 million tons (11 EJ) in 2030, and to 140 million tons (20 EJ) by 2050. As hydrogen use grows while its production is increasingly de-carbonized, it could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 700 Mt annually in 2050.
Hydrogen Energy Useful for Household Heating
There are ambitious global targets of meeting an equivalent of 6.5 million households heating need with blended or pure hydrogen using about 3.5 million tons (0.5 EJ) of hydrogen by 2030. By 2050, nearly 8% of global building energy use for heat and power (11 EJ) is expected to be provided by hydrogen.
Hydrogen can be used to de-carbonize the natural gas grid in three ways: it can be blended with natural gas, methanized, or used in its pure form. Low percentages of hydrogen can be safely blended into existing gas networks without major adaptations to infrastructure or appliances. In line with this development, the “H21 Leeds City Gate” project in the UK is planning to progressively convert all households to 100% hydrogen before 2030.
It is important to acknowledge some startling revelations:
· Korea plans to replace CNG with hydrogen to power 26,000 buses. Part of the plan, which will be carried out together with South Korean automaker Hyundai, is to replace 2,000 CNG buses with hydrogen-powered buses per year and install hydrogen fuel pumps at some CNG filling stations nationwide.
· India has inaugurated a solar-powered hydrogen fuel station which generates power from solar energy through an electrolyzer. The station was built to serve public transportation buses and is part of a program put in place by Indian government institutions related to alternative energy.
Implications of the Potential Hydrogen Economy on Oil Exporting Countries
· Decline in the demand for crude oil
· Decline in revenue from oil
· Macroeconomic implications
· Potential exchange rate issues
· Impact on Foreign reserves and potential for increased tendency for borrowing.
In summary, the deployment of transport solutions has begun around the world, with Japan, South Korea, California, and Germany leading the way. Activities in other European countries, in the Northeast US, and in China are also under way. Japan has set itself the target of having 40,000 FCEVs on the road by 2020 and 800,000 by 2030; China plans 1 million FCEVs by 2030 and is already investing in growing its manufacturing capabilities
Improvements in fuel cell efficiency will likely reduce fuel consumption by 20- 35% until 2030. In addition, fuel costs per kg of hydrogen are expected to fall as distribution and retail infrastructure scale up. These improvements could give FCEVs an advantage over diesel fuel in all segments.
*Prof Chijioke Nwaozuzu is former British Chevening Scholar, Former PTDF PhD Scholar, and Deputy-Director at Emerald Energy Institute (for Energy & Petroleum Economics, Policy, & Strategic Studies), University of Port Harcourt. Email: email@example.com.