In the last century, hydrogen powered the space programme and took man to the moon, now hydrogen is back at the forefront of innovation and beginning to change the way we think of renewable gas. Once thought of as useless this abundant gas has the power to change the renewable energy sector on a worldwide scale. The US is quickly taking the lead in rapidly decarbonizing their energy grids as global demand for liquid natural gas is escalating.

Decarbonized power grids

The power grids are currently more decarbonized than ever, and that’s not stopping soon. Solar PV and wind power have been scaled up and become cheaper, technology has improved and renewable power prices have fallen rapidly, making renewable energy sources more affordable than ever for both commercial and domestic buyers.

Natural gas has also become much cheaper in recent. New drilling technologies and advancements in combined-cycle gas turbine technology means that natural gas prices have plummeted. Fuel efficiency continues to improve and natural gas continues to replace brown energy generators.

Creating natural hydrogen gas

Natural hydrogen gas however, is created primarily via the process of steam reforming, a smaller amount also being produced through water electrolysis. Steam reforming is currently employed to produce around 95% of the world’s hydrogen. The process involves using a catalyst (predominantly nickel or other expensive commodities), steam then reacts with methane to create carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon monoxide can be used to obtain further hydrogen by reacting this with water, creating hydrogen and carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). Electrolysis of water results in the separation of oxygen and hydrogen when an electric current is passed through water.

Both of these systems are still relatively costly and water electrolysis, for example, still produces gases that have the potential to damage the environment.

Most of the hydrogen currently manufactured is for the production of ammonia. The use of hydrogen as an energy source today is somewhere between 1 and 3% of total consumption. Few companies have begun to delve in to other routes of hydrogen production as an energy source. Some smaller start-ups have begun the next step in renewable energy sources, such as the ‘just add water’ hydrogen approach.

The silicon nano-particle method

It has now been discovered that if silicon is milled to spherical nano-particles and added to water, it can create hydrogen that is pure enough to use in a fuel cell. The only by-product of this reaction is silica, a non-toxic and useful commodity in many industrial processes. Although the nano-particles are fairly expensive to produce currently, the particles have the ability to power portable devices in situations where water is available. Portability is arguably more important than cost, and could benefit military operations, and rural vehicles to name a few. Small companies are researching the use of these particles to create a cheaper way of making ‘tabs’. These tabs are composed of tightly packed particles for use in vehicles and other larger generators.

Hydrogen is incredibly versatile in the renewables industry.  All of the developments in this area are futile without an efficient way of storing such energy. Perhaps hydrogen could have the answer to this too? It can also be used to store renewable energy at large scale for periods from hours to months. This has already been demonstrated throughout the renewables industry on both  domestic and commercial scales. Research being undertaken at the moment will further develop the utility of the gas, maximising the potential and creating better hydrogen storage facilities. This could be a viable solution for a carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, national power grid.

Is hydrogen the answer to cleaner and ultimately 100% green energy?

The answer to cleaner and ultimately 100% green energy lies within the utilisation and combustion of hydrogen and natural gas. As the energy sector becomes more refined, technological advancements allow for the energy to be both made and stored in a much larger, safer and cheaper way. This ultimately leads to an infrastructure based on a zero-carbon supply that is reliable and readily available. It has been argued and agreed by many, that because of the utilisation and versatility of hydrogen, it is the cleaner, more useful and easier-to-acquire ‘coal’ of the 21st century.