Ten hydrogen myths busted
- Myth – The use of hydrogen as a fuel is new.
Busted – Hydrogen was used as a fuel before oil.
Hydrogen was first produced by electrolysis in 1789 and was first used as a “fuel” when it was produced as a constituent of coal gas in 1792. The modern oil industry has roots dating back to 1847, so is youthful by comparison.
- Myth – Hydrogen is difficult to transport and store.
Busted – Hydrogen in the form of carrier fuels is easier.
It is certainly true that hydrogen is more difficult to transport and store than diesel fuel, but this is also true of virtually every other alternative fuel. Diesel is quite a hard act to follow, but since it causes considerable pollution the idea that it is some sort of ongoing benchmark is false. Hydrogen therefore needs to be compared with other clean fuels.
In addition to the above hydrogen can be combined with other compounds so that they become a hydrogen carrier medium such as ammonia or methanol. Perhaps counter intuitively, although this increases their weight per unit of energy carried, it massively reduces their volume per unit of energy carried, approaching that of diesel fuel. If hydrogen carriers are used the transportation and storage of hydrogen can actually be much easier and cheaper than many people perceive.
- Myth – Hydrogen is expensive.
Busted – Fossil fuels are not priced to cover their environmental impact (yet) and the price of hydrogen is coming down.
The cost of hydrogen is coming down year on year as production is ramped up. Moreover, with the rising price of natural gas, the relative cost of green hydrogen produced from electrolysis is approaching price parity in some regions. It must also be considered that most green fuels cost more due to their carbon neutrality compared to fossil fuels. The fossil fuels have the extraction cost, refining cost, distribution cost and some notional duty, yet have no cost associated with the pollution they cause Therefore at some level fossil fuels only appear cheaper because we do not associate the environmental cost with the purchase cost.
- Myth – There are different colours of hydrogen.
Busted – All hydrogen is colourless, the colour relates to how much carbon is released in its production.
All hydrogen is in fact colourless. The colour refers to the production method and where it sits on the carbon spectrum. Grey hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, whilst blue hydrogen is produced by natural gas with carbon capture and storage. Green hydrogen on the other hand is completely carbon neutral. There are a few other “colours” of hydrogen, but these are the main ones.
- Myth – Green hydrogen production isn’t really clean or green.
Busted – Renewably generated energy to power its production makes it 100% clean.
Hydrogen does not occur naturally as hydrogen in any great quantity, although it is an abundant element. As such, it is synthesized through a very simple process which can be powered by a variety of means. The latest electrolysis methods, if powered by renewables, are completely clean, meaning hydrogen production can only be considered green as the power source feeding the process. Green hydrogen is produced from renewable energy, such as wind and solar, meaning it remains a complete zero-carbon fuel source.
- Myth – Hydrogen is still a fuel.
Busted – Hydrogen is more of a carrier medium for energy.
Although hydrogen is a fuel, in that it contains chemical energy it is not like a fossil fuel. It is artificially made, transported, and then used to drive something. As such it is an energy carrier medium, much more like electricity or steam.
- Myth – Hydrogen power use isn’t emission free.
Busted – Hydrogen power from fuel cells is.
If hydrogen is combusted in an engine or burner this statement would be partly true given that, even if green hydrogen was used, other emissions such as nitrous oxides would arise. Where green hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, however, no nitrous oxide emissions, or any other form of noxious emissions, occur. This means that in a fuel cell context, hydrogen power is truly emission free.
- Myth – Fuel cells are new.
Busted – Fuel cells pre-date the diesel engine.
This myth is almost comic if given some context. The Diesel engine was invented in 1893, the Petrol (Gasoline) engine in 1876 and the first gas engine in 1858. The fuel cell in fact predates them all being first described in 1838 by Sir William Grove, so twenty years before the first internal combustion engine and over fifty years before the first diesel engine.
- Myth – Fuel cells are all the same.
Busted – There are a variety of fuel cell types.
In much the same way that petrol and diesel engines are based around the same basic mechanical principles, but use different fuels and work differently, so it is with fuel cells. They are all based on a principle of a reaction at a membrane surface, but different membranes may be used, as well as different chemistries, or different fuels. Each fuel cell technology provides differing advantages for certain applications. All fuel cell types have a role in decarbonisation, but not necessarily the same role across industries.
- Myth – The Hindenberg fireball was caused by hydrogen.
Busted – The Hindenberg fireball was caused by flammable aluminium and cellulose.
This is the greatest myth of them all. It is thought that the accident was caused by a spark due to static electricity build up, that occurs when all aircraft travel through the air. The resulting visible fireball as the Hindenberg crashed was caused by the flammable aluminium and cellulose based dope covered fabric burning. Somewhat unbelievably the hydrogen bags were in fact made of a highly flammable material themselves. Unquestionably the hydrogen on board did burn but this is not what is seen in the film footage, as hydrogen burns with a clear flame. Clearly the use of hydrogen was a factor, but it was not the root cause, nor was it what’s seen as the flaming fireball.