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Energy Blog: Hydrogen is Working to Find its Place in Efforts to Combat Climate Change

Energy Blog: Hydrogen is Working to Find its Place in Efforts to Combat Climate Change

Green hydrogen is still in a nascent phase, but developers are now using the fuel to power trains, ships, and vehicles.
Hydrogen has had its share of ups and downs as governments look to solutions for reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and engineers and scientists work to make hydrogen technology cost effective, if not simply feasible. In truth, hydrogen’s development has suffered more downs than celebrated ups.

Still, things are looking up in 2023 for hydrogen, spurred on by climate change remediation efforts around the globe. There are some solid developments to show heading into the new year.

In Europe, a German rail line is fully transforming from diesel locomotives to a hydrogen counterpart, developed by France’s Alstom. A $92.5-million project on a 60-mile local line outside of Hamburg resulted in the first train line to operate exclusively with hydrogen-powered locomotives. It is expected to save more than 4,000 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually.

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About half of Europe’s regional trains now operate with diesel fuel. High-speed trains are electric, but electrifying local lines is often cost-prohibitive because of clearance obstacles in tunnels, bridges, and elsewhere. Hydrogen could be a solution. Linde, a partner in the project, is opening a first hydrogen refueling station for the trains, which have a range up to 620 miles between refills and can be refueled in 15 minutes, according to the developers.

In Japan, Toyota is leaning heavily into research on hydrogen-powered cars, partly with the thinking it is easier to fuel the vehicle with hydrogen at the pump as motorists worldwide now fill the tank with gasoline. It already has the Mirai sedan in dealerships with a sticker price of $49,500, although it is powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The automaker, together with Yamaha, has also developed a 5.0-liter V8 internal combustion engine for automobiles, based on a similar engine used in the Lexus RC F coupe. The developers say it can produce up to 450 horsepower. And Toyota recently announced it converted a 1.6-liter, 3-cylinder turbocharged Corolla engine to hydrogen, using high-pressure hydrogen injectors to power a concept vehicle.

Honda also will offer a hydrogen fuel cell version of the CR-V SUV for the 2024 model year. Even Volkswagen, whose officials have continually trumpeted electric vehicles over hydrogen, is working on a hydrogen-fueled vehicle. In late 2022, the company filed for a patent on a hydrogen fuel cell that the company claims will give its vehicles a range up to 2,000 kilometers without refueling.

In South Korea, Hyundai Heavy Industries has completed performance verification on its 1.5-MW hybrid engine built with in-house technology. It has not eliminated the use of diesel fuel, but uses it selectively with a mix of liquified natural gas and hydrogen, and has achieved Tier 3 status in a performance test. Built with an eye on shipping, Tier 3 is the highest grade under the International Maritime Organization’s nitrogen oxide rules.

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There is a growing need for carbon neutrality throughout the shipping and marine industries,” said one official. But they also believe it will be applied in other settings, especially land-based small-scale power generation and distributed generation.

The company is continuing research and development on LNG/hydrogen hybrid engines, and plans to complete development of an engine with a higher proportion of hydrogen by 2023. By 2025, the company plans to complete work an engine fueled by hydrogen alone, and establish a “hydrogen ecosystem” on land and sea.

No doubt, developers still have much work to do in making hydrogen mainstream. But the benefits will be great, according to a recent analysis by McKinsey & Co. Total hydrogen demand can reach 600 million to 660 million tons by 2050, abating more than 20 percent of global emissions, the firm claims. To do so, however, all relevant stakeholders must come together to develop clean-hydrogen value chains.

The workload must be taken up by hydrogen-rich countries (HRCs), those with existing hydrocarbon resources and the industry expertise needed to build and scale new technologies. Most hydrogen used today is considered “gray,” meaning it is produced using hydrocarbons, mostly natural gas. Blue hydrogen uses hydrocarbons, but also includes carbon capture and storage to help mitigate environmental impact.

The ultimate goal is to create more green hydrogen using renewable energy sources and electrolysis, a process that does not produce emissions. McKinsey claims four areas need to be addressed to get to that point.

First, HRCs must scale up both blue and green hydrogen, with blue hydrogen playing a key short- to medium-term role. Abundant supplies of cheap natural gas coupled with carbon capture and storage should drive down costs for blue hydrogen production by 2030. A report from the Hydrogen Council claims the cost of hydrogen for end users could drop by 60 percent from 2020 to 2030.

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Second, local demand for hydrogen needs to be stimulated. With that, the firm believes steel and ammonia produced using clean hydrogen could be competitive with existing production methods by 2030.

Transportation technology also need development. Hydrogen must be in liquid form or transformed into ammonia before it can be transported. Liquifying hydrogen is costly, but converting it into ammonia for transport and then back to hydrogen could add another $2.50 to $3.00 per kilogram by 2030. That would more than double the price, given that green hydrogen production costs could be less than $2.00 per kilogram by 2030, according to the report.

Finally, there needs to be cooperation across countries, customers, and value chains. Long-term agreements between steel or green fertilizer producers, for instance, and hydrogen producers would reduce investment risks in clean-hydrogen projects.

Taken together, industry and governments have much work to do in putting a still nascent green hydrogen industry on its feet. In the meantime, incremental advances such as those in automotive and shipping will continue to make the case for hydrogen.
John Kosowatz is senior editor.

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