Cover photo: a hydrogen fueling station in Berlin, Germany
A Primer on Hydrogen Fuel
While mass media has given considerable attention to the development of electric vehicles – especially those manufactured by Elon Musk’s Tesla corporation – much is happening in the hydrogen fuel sector. Hydrogen fuel is a sustainable energy source, which may replace fossil fuels in industries such as petroleum refining, steel-making and transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells used in some electric vehicles produce only water vapor as an emission.
There are a variety of ways to produce hydrogen fuel involving resources including nuclear power, natural gas and wind power. The most common method, which accounts for roughly 95% of hydrogen production is called “steam reforming.” This is a high-temperature process in which steam reacts with hydrocarbons, such as natural gas or diesel. However, this process produces considerable pollution. So many companies are developing capacity for hydrogen fuel production via devices called electrolyzers, which separate hydrogen from water molecules.
3 Categories of Hydrogen Production
The different methods of hydrogen production emit different levels of pollution.
- Gray Hydrogen: uses the steam reforming process and produces significant carbon emissions.
- Blue Hydrogen: adds carbon capture and storage to the steam reforming process to prevent pollution from escaping into the atmosphere.
- Green Hydrogen: utilizes electrolyzers powered by sustainable energy sources – wind, nuclear, solar – to produce hydrogen with minimal pollution.
Hydrogen and the American Inflation Reduction Act
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) is an American federal law which seeks to combat rising prices by reducing the deficit and lowering drug prices. The IRA also directs substantial public investment into so-called “clean energy” production, including hydrogen fuel. The Act offers a production tax credit for zero-carbon hydrogen equivalent to $3 per kilogram. This effectively makes “green” hydrogen production cheaper than “gray” hydrogen production and has spurred innovation in electrolyzers.
Major Companies that are Investing in Hydrogen Technology
As part of its goal of becoming a net-zero emissions energy company by 2050, Shell recently opened a hydrogen production facility in Rhineland, Germany that produces 1,300 tons of hydrogen annually, a figure which is projected to increase significantly. They are also building Holland Hydrogen I, which will produce 60,000 KG of renewable hydrogen per day, starting in 2025, making it the largest such plant in Europe.
The German car manufacturer BMW also aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. It is making hydrogen-fueled vehicles (FCEVs) a big part of this transition. According to Car and Driver, in spring of 2023, the company will begin small-scale delivery of the iX5 SUV. The FCEV will have 374 horsepower and a driving range of 310 miles.
We think hydrogen-powered vehicles are ideally placed technologically to fit alongside battery-electric vehicles and complete the electric mobility picture.– Oliver Zipse, Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG
Based in the UK, Linde is one of the world’s leading industrial gas and engineering companies. The company currently generates over $2.2 billion in annual revenue from hydrogen fuel. It has built 80 electrolysis facilities around the world and plans to triple its output of “green” hydrogen by 2028.
While proponents see hydrogen fuel as an exciting solution that will help address problems including fossil fuel scarcity and climate change, others are not sold on the technology. As mentioned previously, 95% of hydrogen production today generates pollutants and requires the input of unsustainable resources. That may not change much in the near future. Some skeptics argue that efficiency is a significant problem – that the production process is so energy intensive that the squeeze might not be worth the juice, so to speak. Lastly, some experts believe that the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen-based transportation may never materialize.
Despite more than half a century of development, starting in 1966 with GM’s Electrovan, hydrogen fuel-cell cars remain low in volume, expensive to produce, and restricted to sales in the few countries or regions that have built hydrogen fueling stations.John Voelcker, the former editor of Green Car Reports