It is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe and the lightest element in the periodic table. Yet as we prepare to move into 2021, it could become an increasingly important resource as the world struggles fight the growing climate emergency. Indeed, this element could play a crucial role in a number of technologies in development as we move towards a carbon-free economy.
The substance in question is hydrogen, and it’s sure to be one of the key emerging risks next year.
Don’t just take my word for it, take a peek at the UK government’s recent Energy White Paper, Powering our Net Zero Future. According to the paper, as well as nuclear energy, hydrogen is also seen as an important component of the over-arching vision.
The UK government says it aims to kick-start the hydrogen economy by working with industry to aim for 5GW of production by 2030, backed up by a new £240m net zero Hydrogen Fund for low carbon hydrogen production.
According to the white paper, clean hydrogen could potentially provide a way to decarbonise gas supplies on a much larger scale than reliance on biomethane alone. This could offer consumers a future heating option which works for them in a similar way to natural gas today, but with no carbon emissions.
In a low-carbon economy, hydrogen can be used in a number of other ways. According to a recent analysis by asset manager Schroders, three of these applications stand out: storage, transportation and materials.
Firstly, hydrogen can be used to store electricity in times of excess production from wind and solar. As such, hydrogen storage could offer a potential solution to the problem of intermittency of electricity from solar and wind, which is one of the key roadblocks for faster uptake of these technologies.
However, production costs of green hydrogen are still higher than alternatives using gas. Moreover, the resulting transportation of hydrogen would require significant investment in infrastructure before becoming economically viable.
The second application of hydrogen is in mobility. Although economies of scale favour applications of hydrogen in heavier vehicles such as trains, ships and heavy duty trucks, it is also being used in passenger vehicles.
Much like battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) require considerable infrastructure investment, particularly for charging stations.
However, with faster charging times and longer average range than BEVs, FCEVs could outclass BEVs assuming that large scale production further reduces current production costs and that sufficient charging infrastructure is put in place.
Thirdly, as Schroders points out, high-pollution sectors such as steel and aluminium could benefit from a shift towards heavier use of hydrogen during the production process.
Replacing existing blast furnaces with a direct reduction process, including hydrogen and electric arc furnaces, could become a cost-competitive, lower-carbon way of producing steel and aluminium during times when carbon prices – particularly in Europe – are set to rise.
It’s not all plain sailing, however. Despite these numerous potential applications for hydrogen, costs are still high, and not all technologies are mature enough to be applied across the global economy. Expect some difficult hurdles ahead.