OUR NEW ENERGY CARRIER

Isabel Klein

SCALABILITY

Hi! My name is Isabel Klein and I am the scalability manager of Eco-Runner Team Delft. On this page I want to explore the subject hydrogen with you! Hydrogen is currently a hot topic and we are at the beginning of the hydrogen revolution. We need hydrogen to get rid of our dependence on fossil fuels which is currently destroying our beautiful planet. The effect of global warming is undeniable and it is crucial that we transition to net zero emissions as soon as possible. We at Eco-Runner Team Delft believe that hydrogen plays a key role in this transition and will be the fuel of the future! But what does hydrogen have to offer? Through the several questions below I have tried to give a clear picture on what hydrogen is and why it is so important for the energy transition. I always enjoy talking about hydrogen and the energy transition, so feel free to contact me if you have any questions or want to collaborate! 

Want to learn even more about hydrogen after reading this page? Check out our very own podcast ‘The waterstofpodcast’, where we discuss several topics around  hydrogen with experts in this field. The podcast is in Dutch, and is available on Spotify, Apple and Google podcasts.

Hydrogen is the first and simplest atom in the periodic table and consists of one proton and one electron. 

It is the lightest and the most abundant element on earth. When we speak of hydrogen, we tend to mean dihydrogen ( H2), meaning two hydrogen atoms forming a molecule.

However, this form of hydrogen does not occur naturally on earth. In nature hydrogen is always coupled with another element, for example oxygen in water or carbon in natural gas or oil. To be used in its pure form, it must be extracted from these molecules. 

As explained before, the molecule hydrogen does not occur naturally on earth and must therefore be extracted from other molecules that contain hydrogen atoms. Extracting the hydrogen van be done with certain production methods. 

Currently the most used method (one of the methods currently used) to win hydrogen is steam methane reforming, a technique which splits methane into CO2 and hydrogen with steam under high pressure. The following process then occurs:

CH4 + 2 H2O → CO2 + 4 H2

When this CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, we call it grey hydrogen production. The technology already exists to capture this carbon and store it under the ground. Hydrogen produced this way is called blue hydrogen. The carbon is then captured during the production, moved under pressure in tubes and put in for example old gas fields, 2 to 5 km under the ground, which can save up to 80-90% of carbon emission (TNO, Peters, 2020). Of course this way of producing hydrogen is still not future proof, because fossil fuels are still used in the process.

A sustainable way of producing hydrogen is through a process called electrolysis. With electricity, water is divided into hydrogen and oxygen in a machine called an electrolyser. When green energy is used for the electricity, such as wind or solar, hydrogen is produced in a sustainable way and we call it green hydrogen

The most common type of electrolyser is the alkaline electrolyser which has been used in industry for over more than 100 years. An alkaline electrolyser consists of a DC source and two electrodes, seperated by an electrolyte. The cathode, the negative pole, loses electrons to the water splitting it in hydrogen and hydroxide ions. 2 H2O + 2 e- → H2 + 2 OH-

At the anode, the positive pole, the hydroxide ions form water and oxygen and release electrons. 2 OH- → H2O + ½ O2 + 2e-
The eventual reaction that takes place then looks as follows: 2 H2O 2H2 + O2

Electrolysers are differentiated by different electrolytes and different operating temperatures. The alkaline electrolyser has an efficiency of around 60-80%, but there are newer technologies being scaled up today that are promised to reach way higher efficiencies (Shell, Wuppertal Institut, 2020).

Most of today’s hydrogen production is still based on fossil fuel energy sources. Approximately 68% of global and almost all European hydrogen is made with steam methane reforming and still 95% of the electricity used in electrolysis comes from fossil fuels instead of renewable energy sources. In the future we obviously hope to produce hydrogen in a sustainable way and therefore fully transition to green hydrogen. However right now this is not yet possible since there is not enough green electricity being generated through windmills and solar panels to supply the whole hydrogen production. That is why we need the option of blue hydrogen in the mean time, so we can start building the hydrogen market. Although this technique is not yet applied on a large scale the plans are there to start producing blue hydrogen in the Port of Rotterdam and store carbon underneath the north sea. This project is called project H-Vision. This area is ideal not only for its location near the north sea, but also because of the high current demand for grey hydrogen in the area for oil refinery and fertiliser industry (TNO,2020) (Shell, 2020) (H-vision, 2020).  

Hydrogen has a very high energy density and therefore has a wide variety of possible applications. It can play an important role in mobility, especially in heavy and long-haul transportation, such as for trucks, busses, trains, boats and airplanes, since battery electric vehicles do not seem possible here. Batteries are much heavier than hydrogen tanks and hydrogen has a larger action radius.

Hydrogen can also be used for spatial heating of our homes and other buildings, where electrification or a heat grid will not be sufficient.

Several other possibilities are portrayed below in the following scheme:

Another large advantage of hydrogen compared to electricity is that it can be moved and stored quite easily, just like natural gas or any gaseous molecule. Transport of hydrogen through pipelines can be 10-20 times cheaper than transport of electricity through a cable and large scale storage is at least 100 times cheaper than storage of electricity in a battery (Van Wijk and Wouters, 2019) (Van Wijk, 2020). Therefore hydrogen will play a big role in storing renewable energy and transporting it around the world. This can compensate for the fluctuating energy production caused by renewables and the larger energy demand we have in winter. For instance in the summer when the solar panels produce too much electricity to put into the grid, we can use this overload of electricity to produce green hydrogen. This way the electricity is stored in hydrogen and can be used whenever needed. 

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