Green hydrogen, almighty gas of the gaps
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