Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but in its gaseous form is very rare on Earth; it exists mostly in the form of chemical compounds such as water, hydrocarbons and generally speaking organic matter. That means that we need to employ industrial processes to produce useable hydrogen gas. Currently, the most commonly used process is reforming of natural gas – 95% of the hydrogen now generated in the United States is produced using this method. Unfortunately, this process also produces carbon emissions, which are released into the atmosphere – unless relatively costly carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) solutions are employed
While it hasn’t yet seen widespread adoption, another method of cleaner hydrogen production exists: electrolysis. By using green energy to electrolyze water, hydrogen gas is produced, with only oxygen as a by-product. While inroads are being made into industrial-scale production of hydrogen by electrolysis, costs can remain prohibitive. However, as renewable energy becomes more efficient and less costly, industrial electrolyzing technology and waste to energy technologies become more readily available, along with increasing global pressure to decarbonize, we are likely to see green hydrogen production become more widely adopted in the coming years.
Hydrogen has many advantages as we push toward a greener and more decarbonized industrial global society. As a fuel source, it is significantly more energy-dense than electric batteries. While personal and commercial electric vehicles have seen widespread adoption in recent years, batteries still don’t carry sufficient charge in relation to weight to allow for practical use in longer-distance transportation such as long-haul trucks, ships and air transport. In addition, batteries take a significant time to fully charge.
Advances in hydrogen fuel production technologies could begin to address some of these issues.
Hydrogen also has the potential to supplement or even replace the natural gas which is currently widely used for home heating in North America, Europe and parts of Asia. While replacing natural gas with electrical heating could be costly, and has the potential to tax electricity generation and distribution capacity during cold periods, utilizing hydrogen as either an additive to natural gas or eventually as the sole fuel could be achieved more efficiently.
If major natural gas producing nations – such as countries in the Middle East – do start switching to hydrogen, the way could be paved for a smoother, swifter and more realistic transition to a global hydrogen economy.