CU Awards - Essay Competition 2021

 

SECOND PRIZE :  By - Sankar Pranav Govindaraju, MSc SELECT Y2 (UPC, PoliTo)

 

“I have a dream!” - Martin Luther King Jr.

 

The terms climate change, carbon footprint, ambiguous policies have garnered a lot of attention since the start of the 20th century and especially in the last decade, many countries have come forth and have taken strides in making the whole planet sustainable again. The Paris climate pact or Fit for 55 package or the upcoming COP26 initiatives are small examples of how ambitious and desperate the EU and the rest of the world is to handle this crisis. Desperate situations call for desperate measures and hence the climate crisis brought one of its oldest allies back into the game: Hydrogen, ironically one of the most abundant elements in the universe and yet one of the scarcest elements on earth crust (making up to 0.14% of crust).

 

There has been a renewed interest in hydrogen after almost 20 years since it began to be used as lift-off fuel in aircraft. This time it is likely to last, with most of the innovation, R&D and policies coming from the technical & engineering hub of the globe: the EU, whose policies and targets are now being adopted on a global basis.

Figure 1: Role of hydrogen in the energy transition (World Economic Forum)

Green hydrogen is gradually expanding its wings from refining and chemical industries to transportation, manufacturing, buildings and electricity. The adoption of ammonia in electricity, fuel-cell based vehicles, stored hydrogen in salt caverns, DRI based steel manufacturing is just a sample of how much potential this element holds. In due course of this article, we will analyze why hydrogen could be called the fuel of the future!

 

When one analyzes the execution of policies to reach the road for the announced pledges scenario or the net-zero emissions scenario for 2030 and 2050, the transportation sector which is responsible for over 20% of the GHG in 2020, there is an extensive emphasis on the Fuel-cell vehicles(FCEVs). FCEVs have complete dominance over electric vehicles in the hard-to-electrify segments like long-haul or heavy-duty tracking or shipping or the aviation sectors. The kind of investments and the R&D being pursued by companies such as Iberdrola, Daimler, Hyzon, Shell etc is definitely expected to bring more and more FCEVs onto the roads. Additionally, FCEVs have an edge over battery-based EVs due to their ability to operate at colder temperatures (potential to dominate in the Nordic regions, Russia etc). The recent announcement by the European Union commission to establish hydrogen-based charging stations for every 120km along the highways of the EU further boosts their future position in the transportation industry. Moreover, hydrogen could be prepared on the site of refuelling stations, unlike electricity which needs to be supplied from the grid. Consequently, hydrogen refuelling takes less time when compared to the BEV’s which require fast chargers that put additional stress on the grid. Moreover, years of research and fieldwork has yielded safe handling techniques for hydrogen. Ultimately, the emissions from the FCEV tailpipe is just pure drinkable water unlike the carcinogenic pollutants from the IC engines.

Figure 2: How FCEV’s work (Toyota)

Although the issue of infrastructure, charging stations, pipelines, pumping, refuelling etc,  persists w.r.t green hydrogen, there have been many mature and innovative proposals in recent times to counter this issue. For instance, utilizing salt caverns to store hydrogen underground, liquefaction and transportation of hydrogen through minimal modifications of the operational NG plants, conversion of decommissioned or soon-to-be decommissioned off-shore oil wells into off-shore wind-based plants to generate green hydrogen with the aid of electrolyzers and desalination plants again with minimal modification of the infrastructure. 

 

The issue of the RES (Renewable Energy sources) curtailment in the grid has been one of the major concerns for economists and grid operators globally, the injection of hydrogen into the gas grid and linking it with the electricity grid will definitely add flexibility and backup. Stationary fuel cells can act as critical sources of power for important buildings like hospitals and data centres. Moreover, adding hydrogen to the grid would greatly benefit the transportation sector since real-time monitoring of the amount of hydrogen stored, fuel-cell capacity leads them to act as secondary refuelling stations in case of emergencies.

 

It’s not just the road transport but we can see a huge kick-off for the hydrogen and its product based ammonia gradually making steady progress in the rails, shipping and aviation industries. The combination of synfuels in aviation by airbus or the use of ammonia in maritime engines or the use of hydrogen in shipping industries by Norway or the United States are some of the instances where we can realise the impact that hydrogen can make if implemented on an even larger scale.

Figure 3: Airbus roadmap to hydrogen-based aircraft (Aviation Today)

It is necessary to have a vision where sustainability and productivity go hand in hand. This is where I feel Hydrogen comes to the rescue. The co-firing of hydrogen-based ammonia and coal reduces the carbon emissions apart from the readiness to adopt gas turbines that can currently generate using gases that have close to 70% hydrogen content. The proposals to replace NG with green ammonia generated from green hydrogen in IC engines to decrease the emissions are already in motion. However, the destination is very long when we observe the fact that there was 90 Mt demand for hydrogen in the year 2020 and out of which more than 85Mt of demand came from the refining and chemical industries.

 

To conclude, the world needs to curb some of its existing technologies as they have shown an immense effect on the climate and the environment. And not to forget the need for increased energy production all around the world. With these challenging times ahead of us, Green Hydrogen might be the most worthy investment in the energy sector. The limitations in harnessing it, by each passing day, seem less insurmountable. It is time to turn towards the 1st element of the periodic table and unearth the tremendous potential it holds.

 

References

 

  1. IEA (2021), Global Hydrogen Review 2021, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/global-hydrogen-review-2021
  2. Calise, F., d'Accadia, M. D., Lanzini, A., Ferrero, D., & Luka, S. M. G. (2020). Solar hydrogen production: Processes, systems and technologies. Academic Press, an imprint of Elsevier.
  3. Rievaj, V., Gaňa, J., & Synák, F. (2019). Is hydrogen the fuel of the future? Transportation Research Procedia, 40, 469–474. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trpro.2019.07.068
  4. Reddy, S. N., Nanda, S., Vo, D.-V. N., Nguyen, T. D., Nguyen, V.-H., Abdullah, B., & Nguyen-Tri, P. (2020). Hydrogen: Fuel of the near future. New Dimensions in Production and Utilization of Hydrogen, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-819553-6.00001-5
  5. The Economist Newspaper. (n.d.). Hydrogen: The fuel of the future? The Economist. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.economist.com/films/2021/08/25/hydrogen-the-fuel-of-the-future.
  6. Iberdrola to supply green hydrogen for buses in Barcelona in 2021. Iberdrola. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://www.iberdrola.com/press-room/news/detail/iberdrola-supply-green-hydrogen-buses-barcelona-2021.

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