Fifteen years ago, I proudly roamed around Reykjavík riding a hydrogen-powered bus. Jeremy Rifkin had just published his book, The Hydrogen Economy, in which the lightest of the elements was forecast to become the solution to our planet’s scalding problem. It was clear that hydrogen was not really an energy source; it is a flammable gas; it must be extracted from methane or water (thus emitting carbon or requiring lots of energy); and it must be stored in special tanks to prevent the smallest atom from slipping away. But for many, hydrogen was the future.
Fifteen years later, in Reykjavík hydrogen buses are no more. One currently resides in the Transportation Museum. The others were scrapped. The world's first hydrogen filling station is still there, without much to do. It looks like an epitaph over the hydrogen economy’s grave.
But don’t write off hydrogen so soon. In 1783, Antoine Lavoisier gave hydrogen its name: ‘water generator’. There is certainly enough H2O on Earth to provide plenty of hydrogen, yet more than 99 per cent of it is saline and thus capable of corroding in minutes the electrodes used in electrolysis (the process for separating the H2 from the O). Now, scientists at Stanford University have developed a new metal coating which makes electrodes withstand those harsh chemical reactions. All the water in the world will potentially be available for making hydrogen. Researchers in Belgium, meanwhile, have recently announced the development of a solar-powered machine that can reap hydrogen from moisture in the air. They claim their device, which has taken ten years to develop, can serve up to 250 litres of hydrogen per day.
A new paper in Nature Energy claims that ‘renewable hydrogen’ (quite a misnomer, intended to define renewable energy-fuelled electrolysis) is already cost-competitive thanks to a relevant fall in wind energy price. While Reykjavík won’t dust off its buses any time soon, hydrogen without any carbon fingerprint would be a boon for several industrial applications. Not to mention for the planet.
In mid-March, China announced a proposal to develop a network of hydrogen refuelling stations. In Japan, Toyota and Honda are selling hydrogen powered cars and are teaming up to increase the number of stations across the country.
Maybe a full hydrogen economy will never happen. Still, the monumental energy switch we call ‘decarbonisation’ will require as many allies as we can recruit. Hydrogen can definitely be a powerful one.
This was published in the May 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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