Green hydrogen, almighty gas of the gaps

AXP Photography, via Unsplash Public Domain

This column previously appeared in the October issue of Dutch technology magazine De Ingenieur.

Centuries ago, life was straightforward. The will of an invisible but omnipotent supreme being explained everything. If you got a fever, you got a fever because god wanted it. If it rained, it rained because god wanted it to.

Over time, curious people came up with alternative explanations. Understanding the origins of infections made it possible to prevent them. More effective than praying not to get a fever. Understanding the water cycle encouraged us to collect precipitation for use in dry times. More effective than dancing for rain when the beets are dying.

Despite these advances, religion retains great influence in the world. The faith is deeply rooted and the incumbency has an interest in keeping it that way. Meanwhile, science still leaves serious knowledge gaps open, in which the will of god remains a working hypothesis to this day. However, every time something ‘difficult’ turns out to be explainable without a god, that explanation is immediately preferred. The all-powerful supreme being has become a God of the Gaps.

That wonders will never cease was proven again last summer. Then I read about a fully battery-electric container ship with a length of 120 meters. This ship, with a range of 1,000 kilometers and capacity for 700 standard sea containers, will be launched this year. After that, I couldn’t get the parallel with the god of the gaps out of my head.

Over time, curious people came up with alternative solutions.

Not so long ago, the energy transition seemed straightforward. Relying on an omnipotent and invisible (but green) gas was the solution to everything. Those who want sustainable heating needed hydrogen. Those who want to sustainably transport people or things needed hydrogen.

Over time, curious people came up with alternative solutions. Sustainable heating of homes soon proved more effective with a heat pump. Sustainably powering cars and buses proved more effective with batteries. Meanwhile, beer brewers are also switching to heat pumps. And now, even hauliers in heavy shipping see a sustainable future without hydrogen.

Despite all this progress, hydrogen still holds great power over the world. The ideal vision is deeply rooted and the establishment has an interest in keeping it that way. At the same time, serious energy consumption issues still remain open, in which the need for hydrogen remains the genuine working hypothesis. For example, fertiliser and steel production, where hydrogen plays not only an energetic but also a chemical role. Or aviation, where so much energy is needed in compact form.

Here too, however, I keep looking out for positive surprises. Experiments with direct electrolysis of iron ore are already under way. Battery-powered aircraft for short flights are under development. Harder to imagine – but not entirely inconceivable – is that in the future we will be able to make do with less steel, fertiliser and aviation.

In any case, the incentive to look for alternatives remains. Every time we discover that something ‘difficult’ can be done without hydrogen, it immediately turns out to be the more efficient option. Even the biggest promoters of the hydrogen economy cannot ignore it by now. The all-powerful green hydrogen has become a Gas of the Gaps.

Imagecredit: AXP Photography, via Unsplash Public Domain

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1 reactie

  1. Carel Wreesmann schreef:

    For a long time, I have been struggling with this question: Where does the hydrogen religion come from?
    If you say that the energy transition is possible without hydrogen at all, then you are a heretic (that’s how I feel myself).
    Hydrogen is needed neither for heating nor for transport, let alone for electricity generation.
    Industrial applications of hydrogen
    First of all, steel: Fe2O3 + 3 H2 => 2 Fe + 3 H2O. Is that also possible with just heating? Mercury (Hg) is also extracted by applying heat: 2 HgO => 2 Hg + O2. I admit, that means heating up to 1,500C (instead of up to 400C for mercury), but that high temperature is certainly achievable with electricity, see ‘Experiments with direct electrolysis of iron ore are already underway’.
    Subsequently ammonia: 2 N2 + 3 H2 => 2 NH3. Ammonia is indispensable for the synthesis nitrate and urea, which constitute the N in NPK fertilizers. But will we need more or less of this fertilizer-N in the future? With the rise of cultured meat, I expect the latter.
    Finally, most hydrogen is currently consumed at oil refineries for desulphurization and cracking of petroleum. But we are moving towards a fossil-free future!
    The above involves direct use of hydrogen. There are also other roles for this energy carrier.
    Hydrogen as a storage medium
    This requires hydrogen, but are we going to use fuel cells for this, or flow battery technology such as hydrogen bromide (see Nevertheless, in both cases, a lot of hydrogen is needed to fill the systems, but once filled, hydrogen is no longer required.
    Hydrogen as a means of energy transport
    Especially when it comes to transport over long distances, e.g. from the Sahara to the Netherlands. Transport of energy in the form of hydrogen per pipeline is cheaper than via HVDC cables in the form of electrons. Transport of energy in the form of hydrogen by pipeline is cheaper than with electrons through HVDC cables. But when this hydrogen is converted back into electricity upon arrival, this option is considerably more expensive than HVDC (see When those power cables are made of copper, as many people still think, HVDC is indeed far too expensive. However, those cables are made of aluminum, and that does enable affordability.
    Then there is aviation, where kerosene will continue to be indispensable for long-distance flights. The same applies to green seagoing vessels, which then must run on methanol or LNG. Production of these fuels without hydrogen is very well feasible from biomass. In the media you read that green kerosene is made from CO2 via Direct Air Capture and green hydrogen. With biomass, this is also possible without hydrogen.
    The tragedy of oil companies is that when driving electric, no one passes a gas station anymore, but recharges their battery at home. So how do these organizations get their revenue? With hydrogen, that income will continue, because then all car drivers will continue to visit their filling stations.
    That’s how I think the hydrogen myth came into the world, just as a PR story of ‘Big Oil’. The astonishing thing is that even the biggest opponents of this sector have a firm belief in hydrogen.

    With thanks to Google Translate (Dutch to English)

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