With the growing awareness of climate change has come a slew of ingenious inventions, particularly in the realm of alternative energy. A massive amount of emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are a finite energy source. They will eventually run out.
We can't eliminate 100% of atmospheric emissions. They are necessary for human survival. Without these emissions, temperatures would drop to levels humans couldn't survive.
But we've seen a significant increase in global greenhouse gasses since the industrial revolution, leading to excess atmospheric levels that could eventually warm the Earth and cause a slew of adverse outcomes, including more severe and frequent natural disasters, polluted air, and wildlife degradation.
In comes the race to lower emissions, hence the growth of alternative fuels. Of particular interest is the discourse about which alternative is best, with many individuals focusing on one key player. But the reality is that all options have varying strengths and weaknesses, and what is considered 'best' varies depending on location, weather patterns, terrain, and other factors. Ultimately, a mixed approach will likely yield the most promising outcome, allowing customizable options to suit the installed location.
Hydrogen fuel is among these potential solutions, gaining an array of followers over past years. Its strengths and abundance make it a desirable option amongst engineers and researchers.
Full of Potential
Contrary to what many might think, hydrogen itself is not an energy source but rather an energy carrier. Different types of energy produce hydrogen, including renewables, coal, and natural gas. Additionally, hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, making it a relatively accessible option.
Hydrogen is produced using various methods - electrolysis and steam reforming are currently the most popular. The latter uses high temperatures and steam to produce hydrogen from hydrocarbon fuel. The former has a smaller environmental footprint and uses an electrolyzer and water molecules to create hydrogen.
When paired with a fuel cell, hydrogen can effectively provide enough power to fuel anything from extensive infrastructure to residential homes.
An Array of Colors
Not all types of hydrogen are created equally. Even though the fuel may be beneficial for the planet, it can still produce emissions depending on the production method. This brings us to different types of hydrogen, classified based on the energy source used during production, the method of production, and emissions management.
The less common types are red, pink, yellow, black, and brown, produced from biomass, nuclear power, mixed sources, bituminous coal, and brown coal, respectively. Of these options, black and brown hydrogen is considered the least eco-friendly.
The more common types are green, grey, and blue.
Green hydrogen is considered the most eco-friendly of the bunch, produced from renewables using the previously mentioned electrolysis process.
Grey hydrogen is produced by steam reforming natural gas or methane and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a by-product.
Blue hydrogen is similar to grey hydrogen. The only difference is that 80-90% of the emission by-products are captured and stored, making this type of hydrogen slightly more eco-friendly than its counterpart.
Colar coding hydrogen fuels helps with accountability and transparency. For example, it doesn't tell us much if a company says they are delving into hydrogen technology. But when the public hears they are working with gray hydrogen, the company's objectives are clearer.
And just because a particular type of hydrogen isn't the better option doesn't mean it isn't good or worth investing in. Depending on the varying factors that go into production, it can still yield positive outcomes relative to traditional fossil fuels. Further, hydrogen projects help drive the hydrogen movement, promoting continued price drops, technological advancements, and mainstream adoption.
In the United States, hydrogen has seen an upward trend in interest and funding, especially considering it's still in the initial stages of its predicted success. For instance, the world's first fuel cell for marine ports is located in Hawaii, there are roughly 10,000 fuel cell cars in use, more than 45 hydrogen stations, more than 60 hydrogen busses, and more than 35,000 hydrogen forklifts. The United States Department of Energy has an entire departmental sector focused on hydrogen and fuel cell technology. Interest in hydrogen fuel and fuel cells has grown so much that the cost of fuel cells has decreased nearly 60% since 2006.
Many startups and long-established companies around the globe have taken an interest in hydrogen fuel. Many either invest in the energy carrier or produce their own hydrogen-based products. The movement is catapulting hydrogen fuel as a legitimate addition to the world of alternatives, urging a future of sustainable options and a thriving planet.