Future brightens for hydrogen fuel cells

Will hydrogen soon become a major source of clean energy? A Brussels-based lobby group called The Hydrogen Group would like us to think so. According to its calculations, the gas could be meeting 18% of the world’s energy demand by 2050.

Shell CEO Ben van BeurdenSinopec also has faith in hydrogen’s potential. In the same week that Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden speculated that it was “probably fair to say that 2019 was the high point when it comes to our oil production,” the Chinese energy giant announced that it was planning to push forward into hydrogen energy.

President Xi’s pledge to cut China’s carbon emissions to almost zero by 2060 will have certainly played a large part in determining  Sinopec’s new strategy – as too will China’s  commitment to technical innovation that was spelt out loud and clear in the Communist Party’s latest five-year plan, also made public last week.

Since it is responsible for more than 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide, China will need all the help it can get it if it is to hit its emissions goal, but the powers that be have also clearly identified hydrogen as a niche within the rapidly growing clean-energy industry that it can make its own.

“Like solar, like wind, like batteries, this is a new clean energy business that China wants to dominate,”  Neil Beveridge, an analyst at Bernstein told the FT. “It’s still very, very early days, but clearly this is going to be a big, big industry in the future if China’s going to hit net zero.” And, he might have added, the rest of the industrialized world.

Serious attempts are already under way to harness the energy potential of this, the most abundant element on earth, through its use in fuel cells that work by generating current from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Last year, K-Pop sensations BTS featured in a Hyundai advert promoting its Nexo fuel-cell car, and earlier this summer Toyota announced it was entering into a joint venture with several Chinese carmakers to develop its own fuel-cell technology.

Hydrogen carAlthough fuel cells have a high energy density, it is currently not possible to charge them in the same way as a conventional EV battery. At the same time, the hydrogen tanks that have so far been developed for safe use in cars only last a maximum of 100 miles.  Mainly for these two reasons there were, according to the International Energy Agency, a mere 11,2000 hydrogen-powered cars on the road in 2018 compared to over five million of the battery-powered variety. As the technology currently stands, fuel cells are more likely to be adapted for use in long-distance haulage than in private consumer transport.

But it is not just the automotive industry that is weighing up hydrogen’s potential. Several owners of commercial shipping fleets are also interested, while a group of German pipeline operators has unveiled a plan to build a 1,200km hydrogen grid based on converted natural-gas pipes. The grid could be operational by the end of the decade, but hydrogen’s time in the sun would appear to lie a lot further into the future than that.