Is There Hope for Hydrogen?

It’s been there all along, surrounding us since the beginning – an energy source which boasts cleaner end results for motive power, an economical match to fossil fuels, and most importantly, doesn’t directly produce CO2. It’s the most proliferate atom in living things, makes up the water we drink, and is a common by-product of natural fermentative processes. So what’s the catch?


The Hydrogen Economy has been a long proposed hypothetical future, where Hydrogen gas replaces fossil fuels as the primary source of energy. Its gaseous state would allow it to be used much like coal or petroleum without the need to be transported as power through an electricity grid. Acting much like a battery, Hydrogen gas stores energy which is released upon exposure to oxygen.


Today, Hydrogen is used mainly for ammonia in the production of agricultural fertiliser, but it’s the other side of the story in the use of fuel which generates the most interest, especially in the North East. And the Northern energy sector is certainly vibrant, with the Tees Valley alone generating 50% of the UK’s total Hydrogen. Here in the North, we’re well-positioned as a hub for the evolving energy sector in being a natural point of contact between the UK and Europe, as well as utilising our industrious and academic environment as a means to produce this valuable commodity. The H21 Leeds City Gate is an excellent example of the Northern Powerhouse at work, with the aim to substitute Hydrogen gas for natural gas in the Leeds gas network.


Between 2014 and 2015, investment in Hydrogen rose from £3.6bn to £16.5bn making it one of the most alluring alternative energies around today. But the full transition to an environmentally cleaner source of energy to end-users, particularly in transportation, would require a large investment and even larger leap of faith from interested parties, as the panacea like illusion of Hydrogen isn’t without its problems. A notable driver of this sector is the long-term decarbonisation target set by the EU, which requires the UK to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% before 2050, as well as source 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.


Hydrogen combustion has a zero carbon footprint, but as of 2016, 96% of global Hydrogen production is still from fossil fuels, and the process of Hydrocracking, the separation of Hydrogen from its molecule of choice, still leaves behind a vestige of Carbon which would be produced normally in the burning of oil and gas. Water electrolysis, which seems the most logical and economical method of Hydrogen production – the of water into its constituents – is actually the least carbon-neutral method available, and one of the most expensive – about 1.5 times the cost of hydrogen from natural gas. Although the technical challenges are real, investment in alternative and greener energy sources such as Hydrogen are important in a changing energy system.


As the UK faces declining domestic production from the North Sea, and closures of aging nuclear and coal powered plants, local solutions are a welcome source of innovation and focus, driving investment to the region, and aiding the technological advancement in essential services.


Go here for the full NEPIC Focal Point Summer Issue 56: Bioresources & Renewable Special