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Hydrogen Fuel Basics: How It Works, Industry Overview, Pros and Cons

Aug 18, 2021 3:05 AM 5 min read

To call it a zero-emissions fuel is totally wrong…It’s not even a low-emissions fuel.”

That’s what Robert W. Howarth, the lead author of a recent study by researchers from Cornell and Stanford Universities, had to say about hydrogen.

Hydrogen Energy

Two decades ago, hydrogen as a fuel source was the talk of the town. The technology touted longer driving distances and faster refuelling. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so it’s as renewable as a resource can get. And most significantly, it was pitched as environmentally friendly. Basically, the fuel of the future.

Today, though, the hype has largely subsided. Yes, hydrogen does power many cars and trucks. It’s used to generate electricity and heat homes. But it’s not particularly the star of the clean energy industry. (Arguably, that crown belongs to battery powered EVs now.)

So, what happened?


Hydrogen for Dummies

How hydrogen-powered vehicles work involves a lot of engineering. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that hydrogen fuel cells, like all fuel cells, use electrochemical reactions to generate energy. In the typical hydrogen cell, hydrogen and oxygen are made to react; this process produces water (yes, imagine water coming out of your car’s exhaust pipe!) and, critically, a lot of energy (remember this scene from The Martian?). It’s this energy that is used to push the vehicle forward.

Essentially, fuel cells are a dance between chemistry and mechanical engineering: a dance that powers the world.


Why the Hot Air?

A reaction between two abundant gases that produces water as a by-product and no dirty exhaust fumes? Why aren’t we all driving hydrogen-powered cars and bikes yet, then?

There are many answers to this question. For starters, hydrogen is abundantly present but also reacts with other elements very easily. Ergo, it’s difficult to find it on its own. Extracting individual hydrogen is a process that demands the usage of precious metals like platinum and iridium, which are rare, expensive and full of geopolitical nuances.

Then there's money. Building new infrastructure for an alternative fuel involves a lot of investment (think of EV charging stations). This requires political will, sufficient subsidies and, significantly, adoption by manufacturers and consumers. The latter is further complicated by the fact that many hydrogen cars are costly. To say nothing of high refuelling costs.

But leave all these points aside. Let’s say, overnight, hydrogen cars somehow become cheap to manufacture and affordable to purchase. Even then, there’s a critical hiccup, which, ironically, is hydrogen energy’s main selling point: zero emissions. 


Dark Secrets and Incomplete Innovations

First, some background. As mentioned before, hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally. Currently, the most popular method of extracting hydrogen involves natural gas in what is called the steam reforming process. This uses methane, is highly energy-intensive, and emits a lot of carbon dioxide. Natural gas production in itself releases methane, a deadly greenhouse gas. Therefore, even if the end-use application of hydrogen fuel may be relatively “clean”, the road to that stage is mired in pollution.

Second, some terminology. We now know what hydrogen and hydrogen energy are. Some companies use carbon-capture technology to trap the carbon dioxide emitted during hydrogen extraction and lock it away. This is called blue hydrogen. It purports to make the process cleaner, but the entire process is still methane-powered. The Cornell-Stanford study found that the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is 20% higher than burning natural gas or coal for heat.

Hydrogen Fuel Basics: How It Works, Industry Overview, Pros and ConsThen there’s green hydrogen. This is when hydrogen is generated by splitting water molecules in a process entirely powered by clean energy (instead of natural gas). But again, this is an expensive and energy-intensive process, and not many countries have enough capacity to produce so much energy from windmills or solar plants; it’s just easier to use methane. Currently, only 0.1% of global hydrogen production is “green”.

Ergo, hydrogen is not exactly a zero-emissions fuel. And its popular alternatives - blue or green - have their own problems.


An Unholy Nexus

Hydrogen’s status as a green fuel is either tenuous or dubious. Why, then, are some countries still investing in it? In March, efforts to install hydrogen production facilities in Tamil Nadu were announced. On Tuesday, the US Senate gave bipartisan approval to a mammoth infrastructure bill that sets $8bn aside to create regional hydrogen hubs.

Some of this could, frankly, be interpreted as hubris and empty promises. India’s renewable energy capacity is still embryonic. How can it be used to extract hydrogen when, for example, its lofty solar power ambitions in itself are far from realisation?

But much of the sustained hydrogen-enabling can also be explained by the nexus between natural gas and hydrogen. The former is a tainted industry like coal and petrol. It knows its fortunes are under threat, and one way it could prolong its lifespan is by hitching its wagon to hydrogen. Across the US and Europe, natural gas companies have been lobbying for the building of new infrastructure like pipelines, despite copious evidence of their adverse environmental consequences. The rationale these companies use? “The pipes that carry our natural gas today can carry hydrogen in the future.”

FYI: The $8bn hydrogen component of the US infrastructure package? It was originally introduced by Joe Manchin, a Senator from West Virginia...a major natural gas-producing state


What Next?

Environmental groups are escalating their confrontation with the hydrogen-natural gas lobby. One criticised the US bill as essentially “a fossil fuel subsidy [disguised as] climate action”.

Going forward, more research would be needed on hydrogen extraction. Not only would these vehicles need to be made cheaper, but the stain of fossil fuels would have to be removed from the process. Green hydrogen seems promising, but its practicality is still up in the air.

The future, needless to say, belongs to clean energy. The alternative is certain environmental catastrophe (did you read the recent UN report?). But whether hydrogen will join the ranks of wind, solar, hydro and nuclear is still not settled science.


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