Ushering in a Hydrogen Economy
Interview with Dr. Mustafa Hatipoğlu, managing director of the International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET), a UNIDO project supported by the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources.
A hydrogen economy – a system of delivering energy using hydrogen – is proposed as a solution to some of the negative effects of using hydrocarbon fuels. What might a hydrogen economy look like in practice?
Currently, the world relies heavily on fossil fuel products to provide a considerable proportion of our present energy needs. A hydrogen economy would mean using hydrogen at every instance where fossil fuels are used. Hydrogen is a gas that can be burned in a manner similar to natural gas or it can be used to produce electricity using a device called a fuel cell.
It is possible to be used as a direct replacement for petroleum products in internal combustion engines, heating appliances, and similar applications. As an elemental gas, it does not contain carbon and its combustion cannot release carbon products into the atmosphere, rendering its use totally clean.
Hydrogen is found, bound with oxygen in water, or with carbon in methane and other compounds. In order to release the hydrogen, we have to supply energy obtained from other sources. Thus, it cannot be considered to be a primary source of energy, but more of an energy vector or carrier.
The benefits of using renewable energy sources, such as sun, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, or tides, are well known. However, a problem shared by many renewable energy sources is that they are intermittent, meaning that they are only available at certain times. For example, solar energy is only available during the day, wind energy cannot be extracted during periods of calm, and hydropower is only available when streams are in full spate. This means that for an electricity grid to be able to meet peak demand there needs to be some form of storage of the power derived from intermittent sources, to smooth over the periods when these sources are not productive. Hydrogen is an excellent method of providing such storage. During times when there excess electricity is being produced, it can be converted to hydrogen through water electrolysis; and conversely, at times of peak demand, the stored hydrogen can be converted back to electricity. Since every region of each country has its share of renewable resources, energy would be produced and used locally, rather than being imported and distributed.
One of the main aspects of a hydrogen economy is the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. How do these vehicles work?
Fuel cells consist of sets of membranes, or solid electrolytes, sandwiched between gas inlets for hydrogen on one side, and oxygen or air on the other. When hydrogen gas comes into contact with the electrolyte plate, electrons are stripped of hydrogen atoms and the positively charged protons migrate through the electrolyte until they combine with oxygen molecules on the opposite surface to form water vapour. The stripped electrons form an electric current as they travel through an external circuit. The more gas that is applied, the more electrons flow, and the larger the current.
Fuel cells can be used instead of batteries in electric cars and other vehicles. The time needed to recharge a battery pack will typically be up to eight hours, whereas it takes just matter of minutes to fill a tank with compressed hydrogen gas. Battery vehicles typically have ranges around 130km, whereas recent fuel cell vehicles can manage 500-800 km. Conversely, fuel cells are more expensive to purchase and have lower energy conversion efficiencies than batteries.
Could you summarize the state of the worldwide drive to increase the use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?
Currently, almost every major international automotive manufacturer is developing a hydrogen-fueled vehicle, either around a modified internal combustion engine or a fuel cell configuration. Similarly, almost every major petrol company is diversifying into renewable energies, with hydrogen playing a major role. Thus, there will be automotive companies able to supply vehicles, and fuel companies able to supply fuel. The trick will be to get both in adequate numbers. We expect to soon see vehicles being deployed in California and parts of Germany where the infrastructure will exist. There will also be hydrogen filling points in a number of cities outside these regions. This will form a nucleus that may allow the infrastructure to spread. If the political will is in place to provide incentives of various kinds for the use of hydrogen-based systems, there will always be entrepreneurs ready and willing to exploit possible new products and concepts. Thus, the key area is the recognition by national governments that the introduction of cleaner transportation technologies requires their considerable support and collaboration.
Today, the world is concentrating on electric battery cars rather than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles because they are cheaper, but this will change once the public becomes aware of the limitations of electric battery vehicles due to their short driving ranges and long charging times. The need for continuous and longer driving ranges will promote the implementation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and their infrastructure. The implementation date of 2015 may shift to 2020 or a little later, but in any case the clean hydrogen technology era is coming – climate change, the depletion of fossil fuels, and the issue of countries’ energy security make it inevitable.
Is the hydrogen economy just something for the rich countries to develop, or does the concept have something to offer developing countries, too?
Hydrogen-based technologies are certainly not cheap in comparison with the current costs of fossil fuels. However, as petrol prices rise, either through increased competition from developing countries or by the slow but inexorable depletion of resources, there will come a time when the costs of conventional and unconventional energy technologies become more equal, and the advantages of being clean and renewable will be yet more attractive. At that time, hydrogen will be a must for all countries, not only the developed and industrialized ones. Many developing countries, such as China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey, already have developed, or are developing, hydrogen programmes, and they can be expected to embrace the hydrogen economy. It may well turn out that these countries will be able to export energy as hydrogen to the industrialized North. Already, schemes are being considered to export energy derived from the enormous wind potential of the Atlantic coastline of Morocco and Mauritania, possibly by transporting hydrogen by pipeline to Europe.
● The International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET) is a project of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) founded in Istanbul in 2004 and supported by the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MENR). Its role is to to support, demonstrate and promote viable hydrogen energy technologies with the aims of enhancing future economic development, particularly in emerging countries, and of preventing the widening of the energy and technology gap while helping skipping over the fossil fuel phase.
Editor of UNIDO's magazine, Making It: Industry for Development. Making It is a quarterly magazine to stimulate debate about global industrial development issues. It discusses the role of industry as a driver of wealth creation and development on the one hand, and the need to ensure the environmental and social sustainability of industry on the other.
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