Innovations in Production, Storage, Power, and Transport are Expanding the Hydrogen Economy Worldwide
Recently, hydrogen has emerged as a leading candidate to help the world shed its dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Numerous breakthroughs around the globe favor an expanding market for this ubiquitous resource.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and plentiful on Earth. It is also clean: The only byproduct of a hydrogen fuel cell is water. Effectively harnessed, it could fuel a clean power transformation around the globe. Entire industries, like transportation, as well as electricity generation and power storage, would have a vast fuel source to help them become “green.”
Nevertheless, hydrogen faces many challenges: Reliable, clean, and safe methods for extracting, transporting, and consuming hydrogen must be developed, refined, and commercialized on a mass scale.
Mining for Hydrogen
In May of this year, a French energy producer that focuses on those challenges, La Française D’Énergie (FDE), announced the discovery of “significant concentrations” of natural hydrogen, so-called “white hydrogen.” It is naturally occurring hydrogen found in geological underground deposits.
FDE discovered the deposit in one of its previously drilled wells in Lorraine, a region in the east of France. The company confirms that fluids within the mining basin measure a hydrogen concentration of 15% at a depth of 1,000 meters (0.6 mi) and 98% at 3,000 meters (1.8 mi).
According to researchers at the University of Lorraine, who collaborated with the company on the measurements, the deposits “could be the largest potential natural hydrogen ever discovered in Europe.”
According to researchers at the University of Lorraine the deposits “could be the largest potential natural hydrogen ever discovered in Europe.”
According to those same researchers, the Lorraine basin could contain 46 million tons of natural hydrogen—equivalent to half the world’s current hydrogen production.
The company has now applied for an exclusive permit to extract the hydrogen from the mining basin.
Gaining access to this volume of naturally occurring hydrogen would solve one of the greatest challenges energy producers face when considering hydrogen as a potential fuel source. In most instances, it must be separated from its natural state as a molecule that attaches to others. The process can be very energy and resource-intensive and is not always “clean.”
Extracting raw hydrogen from deep wells underground eliminates this challenge. Hydrogen occurs naturally on Earth through various processes. For example, serpentinization, a geological process that forms minerals known as serpentines, produces hydrogen-rich fluids when ultra-basic rocks (with less than 45% silica by weight) react with water. Biological processes involving bacteria or algae also release hydrogen, and natural degassing (removal of dissolved gases) releases hydrogen from the Earth’s crust and mantle. These and other processes offer a tremendous renewable resource, just like the wind and the sun, that will replenish itself after consumption.
However, these deposits are not easily discoverable because hydrogen is an odorless and colorless gas, and the underground element is typically masked by naturally occurring microbes that eat it. So, the first challenge is to figure out where to find the hydrogen.
Once it is found, it must be extracted. This poses the next big challenge because geologic hydrogen is found in extremely remote and deep locations. That has not deterred some from pursuing this resource. For example, several large oil companies, including Shell, BP, and Chevron, are part of a consortium with the US Geological Survey and the Colorado School of Mines to study the potential of geological hydrogen.
Meanwhile, the energy sector will have to rely on other less convenient separation methods to tap into this tremendous resource's potential.
Within those methods, other challenges remain. One of the greatest challenges is transport. Unlike other fuels, hydrogen must be highly pressurized or liquified when transported. For the fuel to be available on a scale supporting mass consumption, existing infrastructure would have to be modified to accommodate these unique needs.
Public and private enterprises are teaming up across national boundaries in the South Pacific to find innovative solutions.
Last year, the Australian government announced what it described as the “world's first shipment of liquified hydrogen.” The specially built Suiso Frontier vessel transported super-cooled, liquid hydrogen from Victoria’s Port Hastings in Australia to Kobe, Japan. The 116-meter (380 ft) vessel is the world’s first purpose-built liquefied hydrogen carrier.
Last year, the Australian government announced what it described as the “world's first shipment of liquified hydrogen.”
The milestone is part of the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) pilot project between the two countries. As part of that project, a consortium of Australian and Japanese companies built a hydrogen production plant in Australia's Latrobe Valley, producing 99.99% pure hydrogen. This hydrogen was then trucked to a different facility to be cooled to -253 degrees Celsius to liquify it. It then was loaded with less than 800 times of its gaseous volume onto the Suiso Frontier for transport.
The Australian government estimates that the HESC could produce an estimated 225,000 tons of carbon-neutral liquefied hydrogen when it reaches commercial scale.
Following the success of last year's maiden voyage, the hydrogen economy is poised to grow. Last June, Japanese, Singaporean, and Australian companies joined in a project investing $117 million AUD to build one of Australia’s largest green hydrogen production facilities at Gladstone in Queensland.
The project will use renewable energy to produce green hydrogen. It is designed to generate 200 tons of green hydrogen per day by 2028, with a production capacity of up to 800 tons per day by 2031. The green hydrogen will then be liquefied and exported to Japan and Singapore.
Hydrogen from the Sea
Hydrogen can be shipped over the sea, and someday soon, it may be extracted from seawater, too.
Hydrogen can be acquired from water through a chemical process known as electrolysis, separating hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water.
Water can be a plentiful source of hydrogen. However, fresh, clean water is in high demand. Using it to produce hydrogen on the scale that would be needed to supply the world's insatiable appetite for fuel could, at the same time, put a severe strain on the water supply.
Using seawater could solve this problem. According to the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Water Science School, 96.5% of all Earth's water is found in the oceans as salt water. 2% of the Earth’s water is stored as fresh water in glaciers, ice caps, and snowy mountain ranges. Only 1% of the Earth’s water is available for daily water supply needs.
These numbers make a strong case for seawater as a source of hydrogen. However, seawater poses its own challenges, typically requiring desalination and purification, which are expensive and energy-intensive processes that would otherwise make seawater an impractical choice.
Researchers announced they achieved near 100% efficiency in extracting hydrogen from untreated seawater using a specially designed electrolyzer.
Publishing their findings in the scientific journal Nature Energy in January, the researchers at the University of Adelaide have found a way to overcome these obstacles. They announced in their article that they achieved near 100% efficiency in extracting hydrogen from untreated seawater using a specially designed electrolyzer that incorporates a low-cost catalyst made of cobalt oxide coated with chromium oxide.
The researchers say they are working on a larger version of their electrolyzer that can be used on a commercial scale.
As hydrogen continues gaining momentum, the industry will need more than the occasional breakthrough to carry it to the mainstream. Concentrated and sustained innovation is required to guide researchers and developers toward a unified and expanded marketplace.
The European Clean Hydrogen Partnership (formerly known as the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking) defines hydrogen valleys as “a geographical area, such as a city, a region, an island or an industrial cluster, where several hydrogen applications are combined into an integrated hydrogen ecosystem that consumes a significant amount of hydrogen, improving the economics behind the project.”
In June of this year, a Finnish consortium of energy companies announced they had come together to develop an industrial hydrogen valley in the Uusimaa region of Finland. It would combine green hydrogen infrastructure, storage, and fuel transmission. It would serve those that produce hydrogen as well as its consumers. (The consortium comprises the Finnish energy companies Neste Corporation, Helen, Vantaa Energy, and Gasgrid, Finland.)
Hydrogen valleys are catching on in other parts of the world, too. This month, the North Adriatic Hydrogen Valley (NAHV) project, a transnational project by Slovenia, Croatia, and the Italian Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, received the official green light for its implementation on September 1, 2023.
Closer to home, “at least twenty groups from across the US have submitted final applications this year to the Department of Energy (DOE) hoping to receive up to $1.25 billion in federal funding to become one of six to ten clean hydrogen hubs,” according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.
The applicants are vying for Funding from the DOE's Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program–or H2Hubs. It includes up to $7 billion to establish regional clean hydrogen hubs across America. Funding comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (H.R. 3684) passed in 2021.
A Future Fueled by Hydrogen
Hydrogen has the potential to be the clean fuel of the future. Like other sources of green energy, it faces many hurdles and challenges in entering the mainstream. Recent developments demonstrate a strong commitment from investors, researchers, and energy providers that hydrogen can overcome those hurdles. With continued commitment, a future powered by hydrogen may not be far off.
*Rick Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California, US. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has covered renewable power and other related subjects for over ten years.