Hydrogen: an alternative energy source
In the energy transition hydrogen is a serious alternative to fossil fuels. For a while hydrogen is already in use as rocket fuel, but it’s also suitable for other methods of transport, such as vehicles and ships. It can also be used in gensets. Eventually it may even be used to heat houses. In the coming years we will certainly be hearing more about it. But what exactly is hydrogen?
Under room temperature, hydrogen, the smallest element in the universe, is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. This gas is formed by two hydrogen atoms; H₂. A hydrogen atom is indicated as H and contains one proton and one electron. Hydrogen, H₂, is present in 70% of all matter in the universe. As such, there is plenty of hydrogen available to us, but obtaining it does require certain processes. Hydrogen can, for example, be obtained from water, bioethanol, natural gas or oil.
Hydrogen as fuel and energy carrier
Hydrogen as a loose element is used in the chemical industry and can be used as fuel in combustion engines. In addition hydrogen is an energy carrier: a substance that can produce electricity or warmth through chemical or physical processes. The most commonly used process is electrolysis. Through an electric current hydrogen reacts with oxygen, which results in water, warmth and electricity. This takes place in a fuel cell. Electricity produced in this fuel cell can be used to power an engine, for example in a car. However, hydrogen does come with a challenge. Since it’s a light gas with a large volume it will take up a lot more space than, for instance, a tank of diesel. Methods to make transport and storage more efficient are currently in development.
Sustainable hydrogen through electrolysis
There is no emission of CO₂ when using hydrogen through electrolysis. Thus, the results of the process (water, warmth and electricity) are sustainable. In addition, in comparison to regular fuels the same amount of hydrogen results in a larger amount of energy. As an energy carrier hydrogen is two to three times more efficient. However, it does matter how the hydrogen has been obtained. Naturally hydrogen obtained from gas or coal is not a sustainable alternative: this process still requires fossil fuels and produces CO₂. With bioethanol this is slightly more nuanced. The CO₂ emitted during this process was compensated while growing the crops used to produce the bioethanol. In doing so it is important that the biomass does not repress food production. The most pure source of hydrogen is water. Obtaining hydrogen from water requires electricity. By choosing electricity generated by solar panels or wind turbines it is possible for hydrogen to be an almost fully sustainable and CO₂ neutral fuel.
More and more parties are looking into ways to use hydrogen sustainably and with sufficient yield. Each party focuses on part of the challenge: Bredenoord focuses on the technology for mobile energy, others are looking for ways to increase the availability of fully green hydrogen. The Magnum gas plant in the Eemshaven is being converted into a hydrogen plant. First this plant will work with gas and an underground CO₂ storage, but starting in 2030 the extraction must be fully done through electrolysis of sustainable sources. The Gasunie and Tennet, among others, are researching the possibilities of using excess energy from wind energy parks at sea for the production of hydrogen. Various car manufacturers (including Toyota, Honda and Hyundai) have already introduced fuel cell engines, and in Germany, for example, approximately ninety gas stations already offer hydrogen, a number that grows continuously. Tools are currently made suitable for running on hydrogen as well, such as a tower crane at RKB in Ridderkerk. These are but a few of the recent initiatives taken as part of the energy transition.
Hydrogen is already successfully in use as fuel for gensets. In 2009 Bredenoord launched the Purity with fuel cell technology. Hydrogen gensets have the benefit of working very quietly, in addition to all of the aforementioned benefits of hydrogen as a fuel. The first pilots with the next generation Purity have started in 2021. This new Purity includes a battery pack in combination with fuel cell technology, making this genset just as stable and flexible in use as a regular diesel genset. And with the moving technology hydrogen fuels are increasingly widely applicable. For example, applications such as formic acid can aid in solving the challenges surrounding transportation and storage. Ways to make fuel cell engines function under lower temperatures are also under development. After all, by using demineralized water in the installation the risk of freezing is lower. Use of the Purity at various events has already proven that working with hydrogen, even in the midst of large crowds, is completely safe. Replacing the hydrogen cylinders is an easy and fast process as well. In addition, Bredenoord started researching hydrogen as a direct fuel for combustion engines without the use of hydrogen cell technology.