Why Hydrogen Fuel Cells May Be the Key to Our Sustainable Energy Future

By Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Imagine the impact of international efforts, in both the public and private sectors, to use hydrogen as a replacement energy source.

The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen has a long history of safe use in industry. As the lightest of elements in the periodic table, its unique properties have long fueled historical precedents in transport such as flight in rockets and air balloons. Now, through fuel cell technology, it is increasingly being used to power other modes of transport, such as cars and buses.

Fueling the Future

While the ultimate goal should be to power the world entirely through renewable energy, power generation in the near future will require crafting an energy mix environmentally friendly, versatile and stable enough to begin the progression toward a carbon-neutral society.

However, one of the main challenges of building decarbonization comes from power plants operating on fossil fuels – a leading source of global carbon dioxide emissions. Alternatively, hydrogen’s unique composition allows for it to be burnt and used in existing power plants as a lower-impact substitute. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, electric vehicles and power operations running on hydrogen emit warm air and water vapor as exhaust, thereby making hydrogen carbon-neutral and highly efficient.

Adopting hydrogen as a fuel could also extend the operating lives of coal and gas power plants, enabling power operations to continue as new renewables solutions enter the market. This strategy has two benefits: preventing decommissioning due to national or regional decarbonization and renewables policies, and creating a transitional source of energy that lowers the carbon footprint of these plants.

At Vattenfall’s Magnum power plant in Groningen, the Netherlands, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) is applying its expertise to help support the owner’s ‘Carbon-Free Gas Power’ project, which aims to convert one of the three power plants to hydrogen by 2023. The hydrogen needed will be produced by reforming Norwegian natural gas, and the resulting CO2 from that process will be captured and stored in natural caverns.

Powerful Potential

In addition, MHPS has also successfully tested the burning of a stable fuel mix of 30 percent hydrogen with natural gas in a large-scale gas turbine, which reduced its CO2 emissions by 10 percent. This was a major step towards achieving 100 percent hydrogen combustion, but further enhancement is still needed.

Hydrogen can also be generated through electrolysis rather than by utilizing natural gas as a source. The electrolysis process requires only pure water and electricity. So long as the electricity needed in the process is generated from renewable resources, producing hydrogen in this way would be carbon neutral.

Generating hydrogen by electrolysis could also offer an efficient alternative to batteries for storing surplus power from renewables. This solves one of the key challenges of renewable energy sources: since the power they produce is intermittent and cannot be turned on and off, it does not always meet demand.

Developing Interest

Despite technical advances, the sector’s evolution depends to a large extent on national and regional policies – and globally, experts are raising strategies that create progress in hydrogen power.

In May 2018, Mission Innovation, a global initiative of 23 countries, and the European Union launched its Renewable and Clean Hydrogen Innovation Challenge as part of its commitment to dramatically accelerate global clean energy innovation. This has prompted more cooperation from governments around the world; several national governments have even published their own hydrogen strategies, signaling their commitment to the renewable. The EU and some other countries such as Japan are also committing investment funds to developing hydrogen for both power generation and transport applications.

The transition to hydrogen in a single plant in the Netherlands could reduce annual CO2 emissions by 1.3 million tons each year. Imagine the impact of international efforts, in both the public and private sectors, to use hydrogen as a replacement energy source. If the world is to reach zero carbon emissions before 2040, popularizing the use of hydrogen fuel worldwide is a key step in that process.

A version of this article was previously published on Forbes BrandVoice.