COP27: It’s Time to Talk Hydrogen

by:Pragati Verma

This is the first article in a series on Hydrogen and its Challenges. Read Part 2

Hydrogen and its potential as a clean fuel are hitting headlines, as countries representing over half of the global GDP announced a 12-month plan at the COP27 climate talks in the coastal Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this month.

The Fuel of the Future

All stars seem aligned for Hydrogen to help make clean technologies cheaper and more accessible everywhere. Here’s why: The 47-nation group, including Australia, China, the UAE, the European Commission, and all G7 nations, agreed to deploy at least 100 Hydrogen valleys — locally integrated hydrogen ecosystems that cluster several industrial and research initiatives to carry out pilot projects across the complete hydrogen value chain. Additionally, their target to deploy “50 large scale net zero emission industrial plants” is likely to create demand for hydrogen production.

While COP27 sent a clear signal of policy direction to investors and companies, this push for Hydrogen is not new to the energy sector that has already been scaling up investments in cleaner and more sustainable technologies to achieve net zero. Philippe Allienne, industry expansion manager at Greene Tweed says, “More and more big oil companies are pursuing multimillion-dollar hydrogen projects to reduce carbon emissions and create a long-term carbon-free future. In power generation, hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing energy from renewables in large quantities over a long period. Under pressure to decarbonize, the transportation industry is pursuing Hydrogen-powered vehicles, such as buses, trucks, and even airplanes. 

Energy-intensive industries, such as cement and steel manufacturing, are reconfiguring their processes to replace fossil-fuel-based energy sources with hydrogen fuel.”

Stumbling Blocks

Proponents of Hydrogen have identified several potential planet-saving applications and lined up exciting mega-projects. Even as plans to produce and use hydrogen move ahead, several challenges to position it as the reliable, next-generation, clean fuel remain. Firstly, limited quantities of hydrogen molecules occur naturally and the cheapest way to manufacture hydrogen uses petroleum or natural gas and requires a lot of energy while emitting a vast amount of carbon dioxide, detracting from the sustainability benefits.

Several methods for producing hydrogen that reduce or eliminate these disadvantages are

 emerging. Blue hydrogen, for example, is derived from natural gas, but a carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is applied to capture the carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground. The long-term goal is to make green hydrogen from water via electrolysis using renewable electricity, ideally coming from wind or solar sources. However, fuel cell technology required to produce green hydrogen is costly, and today there is very limited infrastructure to produce or transport green or blue hydrogen required to create a sustainable hydrogen economy.

Additionally, hydrogen is extremely flammable and explosive, making it difficult to store and transport. Due to a low energy density, its storage and transport require large volumes, high pressures, or cryogenic processes to be stored compactly in liquid form. Moreover, it can cause metals to become brittle, and very few pipelines are currently suitable to transport pure hydrogen. Hydrogen is one of the smallest molecules and can permeate almost every material, making it very difficult to seal.

Debates continue, but recent announcements at COP27 and elsewhere make one thing clear: Hydrogen will play a major role in a clean, secure, and affordable energy future in the next few decades.