Why Hydrogen’s Comeback Could Make Elon Sweat
The prospect of safe and sustainable hydrogen use as a clean renewable energy source returns
At the turn of century, the uber-progressive state of California, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, promised a “hydrogen highway” with 200 hydrogen filling stations by 2010.
“The Hydrogen Economy” would deliver the world from reliance on the hydrocarbons that are the root cause of global conflicts and which edge us precipitously closer to climate change that is as irreversible as it is catastrophic.
Around the same time, Iceland embarked upon a scientific and engineering quest to achieve a hydrogen energy economy, trailblazing a path for others to follow. Today, there are just a handful of filling stations in the US and three hydrogen-powered buses sit in a museum in Reykjavík. No great hydrogen industry materialized.
It was hoped that hydrogen would transform the entire energy infrastructure but its effective use as a clean and affordable energy source has always been fraught with problems, preventing it from becoming a fuel for the future.
Storage is a significant issue because hydrogen is a voluminous gas and requires intense compression or liquidation at extremely low temperatures. This pressurisation is both costly and inherently volatile, being susceptible to impact and the potential dangers of transportation.
Hydrogen is also rarely found in its pure form. It’s the most abundant element in the universe but it must be extracted from other substances that contain it, for example hydrocarbons or water. Extraction processes, such as hydrolysis for water, can be costly. With hydrocarbons a catalyst is required, often platinum, and this too can be prohibitively expensive. For these reasons and more, an industry insider-joke about Hydrogen went, “It’s the fuel of the future… and always will be.”
THE HYDROGEN REVIVAL
However, a lucky accident in late 2017 at an Army Lab in the USA, could revive the possibility for the safe and sustainable use of hydrogen as a clean renewable energy source. Army scientists and engineers at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, were carrying out routine materials experimentation when water was added to a nano-galvanic aluminium-based powder. A bubbling reaction was triggered and the aluminium nanomaterial, designed at the lab, was found to produce high amounts of energy when in contact with water, or any liquid containing water. A routine test had given life to the idea of “just add water” applicability for energy creation.
Scott Grendahl, a Materials Engineer and the team leader at the lab says, “The hydrogen that is given off can be used as a fuel in a fuel cell.”
Combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water, fuel cells are often compared to batteries as they both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into usable electric power. However, the fuel cell will produce electricity as long as hydrogen is supplied, never losing its charge. This makes hydrogen fuel cells a very promising technology for heating and electricity supplied to cities and in replacing the centuries-old internal combustion engine with an electrical power train for cars, buses and whole fleets of vehicles.
“What we discovered is a mechanism for a rapid and spontaneous hydrolysis of water,” Grendahl elaborates. His colleague Dr. Anit Giri, a physicist with the lab’s Weapons and Materials Research Directorate, says, “We just take our material, put it in the water and the water splits down into hydrogen and oxygen.”
Mindful of its vast potential, Giri adds, “It doesn’t need a catalyst and it’s very fast. For example, we’ve calculated that one kilogramme of aluminium powder can produce 220 kilowatts of energy in just three minutes.” That’s a considerable amount of power to run electrical equipment and these rates are by far the fastest ever recorded without using catalysts.
“There are other researchers who have been searching their whole lives and their optimized product takes many hours to achieve 50 per cent efficiency. Ours does it to nearly 100 per cent efficiency in less than three minutes,” Grendahl explains.
The team demonstrated the discovery by adding a small amount of water to their powder. The subsequent reaction created enough hydrogen to power a radio-controlled a mini-tank around the laboratory. Their focus is militaristic application and as such, the technology is being considered for use by future soldiers on reconnaissance missions. However, if the new discovery can power a miniature tank then there is obvious hope that the it can be harnessed to revolutionize the automotive sector.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been a growing concern in the automotive industry for years and many manufacturers have invested in developing hydrogen powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). General Motors has spent over $1 billion to date and racked up well over three million miles of hydrogen fuel cell testing.
HONDA LEADS THE HYDROGEN MARKET
Honda is another a market leader for this technology and the Honda Clarity car, currently available to lease, has an estimated range of 366 miles – the longest range of any zero-emissions vehicle. At the beginning of 2017 the two automakers announced a collaboration, investing $85 million to begin mass producing hydrogen fuel cells in 2020. GM and Honda stated they are sharing intellectual property to create a “more affordable commercial solution” for fuel cell and hydrogen storage technology. BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz are also developing hydrogen fuel cell models.
The “just add water” discovery made in Maryland may well change the landscape for the plausibility of FCEVs, which outperform electric vehicles by approximately three times the range and boast shorter re-fuel times, which will aid consumer acceptance. Until now, the main drawback has been the complexity and expense of producing hydrogen, and accordingly, the acute lack of hydrogen stations to support early adoption and beyond.
Evolution in the energy sector is on the horizon and the discovery made by the American Army team, which is now focused on producing scholarly papers and securing intellectual property protections, may prove to be crucial.
The changes to the transport and heavy industry sectors could be huge. Taking as an example the mining industry in Chile – the sector uses 1.8 million cubic metres of diesel fuel annually, 90 per cent of which is used for transport within the mines. This creates emissions of between five and six million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. Effective implementation of fleets of hydrogen fuel cell trucks could help Chile slash its CO2 emissions by 2030, which the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet committed to in April 2017 when she signed the Paris Agreement.
The first Chilean hydrogen conference was held in May 2017 in Santiago de Chile and over 150 experts from 15 countries and more than 80 different companies and institutions discussed the newest developments in producing hydrogen with renewable energy sources.
Markus Böhm, a specialist for hydrogen production plants at Siemens, offered real hope for hydrogen becoming one of the most important energy sources of the next century, saying, “Hydrogen is rightfully named the fuel of the future not only because it is produced using renewable energies, but also because using hydrogen is sustainable and environmentally sound.”
The cutting-edge application of hydrogen as a highly efficient and non-polluting energy source may yet defy the jokes and play a crucial part in a zero-emissions green energy future.