The planet is now on a war footing to roll out green hydrogen, which has become a key objective in the drive to achieve sustainable mobility. With massive investment pledged by virtually all of the world's leading economies, a lot is at stake for this new form of energy, which has yet to overcome significant challenges.
Why is everyone talking about this new fuel source?
The goal of green hydrogen enjoys almost universal support, and the figures being cited are nothing short of astronomical. In his recovery plan, Joe Biden has earmarked around 500 billion dollars to fund research and innovation in a clean energy economy. Europe is also launching projects that are expected to attract a total of 480 billion in investment by 2050. In the United Arab Emirates, the designers of the future city of Masdar have planned to make extensive use of hydrogen. In China, a country that is well ahead in the adoption of the new energy source -- notably thanks to its status as the world's leading manufacturer of electrolysis apparatus, hydrogen is set to play a key role in plans to develop a carbon neutral economy. And that's even before mentioning huge numbers of private investors, who are keen to take up a position in this fast growing market.
How does it work?
The goal of green hydrogen is to facilitate the storage of renewable energy and its use in carbon-neutral transport and industry. In strict terms, hydrogen is not an energy source but an energy vector, which has to be produced and processed before being utilized. Hydrogen can be created with wind, solar and hydraulic power, which allows it to aspire to the status of a clean fuel. And hydrogen is already produced in large quantities, only this hydrogen cannot be used for environmental goals, because its production, which depends on fossil fuels, is highly polluting. Thus the challenge is to clean up hydrogen production. To this end, large-scale electrolysis equipment has to be deployed in tandem with renewable energy infrastructure to make hydrogen production sustainable. Easy to store and to distribute, hydrogen can be made available from service stations like diesel or gasoline, and hydrogen-powered vehicles benefit from a greater range than those solely reliant on battery power.
What are the current objectives?
Hydrogen is expected to play a key role in the transition to clean mobility. New hydrogen-powered trains are already being tested in France's Grand Est region, and American aerospace manufacturers are planning to build hydrogen-powered aircraft. Thereafter, hydrogen could be adopted by industry to achieve the carbon neutrality that will finally pave the way for a reduction in global warming.
The challenge of green hydrogen
Grey hydrogen, which currently accounts for 96% of global hydrogen production, is made from methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Every year, some 75 million tonnes of this inexpensive but highly polluting hydrogen are consumed around the globe. In contrast the main objective of green hydrogen is to contribute to a better environment. As it stands, it is an ambition that does not come cheap, with prices ranging from 5-6 euros a kilo, which is around four times more expensive than grey hydrogen. The Hydrogen Council now hopes to rapidly cut this cost by around 50%, which will require the construction of large numbers of electrolysis plants while continuing to innovate and reduce the cost of renewable energy.
What about natural hydrogen?
Wells of natural hydrogen also known also known as white hydrogen have been discovered in Mali and in other countries around the world (notably France). Rarely cited in investment plans, this form of hydrogen may have the potential to overtake all of the others. Subterranean extraction of hydrogen is possible but little is known about what to expect from such an initiative. As it stands, we can still only speculate about the quantity of hydrogen that is naturally produced by the Earth and the size and scale of the planet's natural reserves. Further investigation is sorely needed
Development remains ongoing in France
France is a big believer in the future of hydrogen. The country's Minister for the Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire, recently traveled to Belfort to show his support for plans to build a hydrogen plant there. The town in northeastern France could soon become a pilot territory for the development of hydrogen thanks to the local presence of McPhy Energy, a company that builds electrolysis plants and hydrogen service stations. Another French company, Genvia, has unveiled plans for a new-generation high-performance solid oxide electrolyzer technology, which could drastically reduce the cost of green hydrogen. The company hopes to reduce the current green-hydrogen price to as little as two euros a kilo.
Green hydrogen has the potential to add significant momentum to the transition to a clean-energy economy, but many challenges with regard to its cost and developments remain yet to be resolved.