Hydrogen Fuel and Conservation

hydrogen fuel graphic

Hydrogen fuel has the potential to be a game changer in addressing the climate crisis. The United States recently released its U.S. National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap in response to the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides “an assessment of the opportunity for hydrogen to contribute to national decarbonization goals across sectors over the next 30 years.” But what exactly is going on? And what does this mean for conservation? We’ll discuss these matters in this blog.


What is going on?

Hydrogen fuel has gained significant attention due to its versatility and zero-emission nature. Because its use produces water vapor and no other emissions, it is considered impactful for solving the problems of air pollution and global warming. Due to its availability, it can also help with energy insecurity. Using hydrogen fuel lessens the need for carbon-based fuels and other alternative energy sources like nuclear. In addition, it uses less real estate than wind turbines and solar farms. Hydrogen fuel cells are also considered more efficient than combustible engines.


Hydrogen is already used for most types of land transport such as cars, buses, and forklifts. It is also used for the space shuttle. Potential uses of hydrogen include long distance, heavy transport including trucks, trains, ships, aircraft, and military equipment; steel production; remote microgrids for electricity and heat; the production of ammonia; and rural auxiliary power. A microgrid is an isolated grid that provides power for a single home, a few homes, a few buildings, a hospital, a university campus, a remove community, or a remote military base. In many of these cases, hydrogen fuel cells will most likely be coupled with electric motors.


How does this work?

Hydrogen is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. It can be produced synthetically by steam reforming of methane, autothermal reforming of methane, coal gasification, electrolysis, and photoelectrochemical water splitting. Electrolysis uses electricity. Photoelectrochemical uses sunlight and specialized semiconductors called photoelectrochemical materials. In his book “No Miracles Needed,” Mark Z. Jacobson makes the case that only the latter two methods should be used, where energy in both cases comes from renewable wind, water, and solar energy (WWS). This is often referred to as green hydrogen. This process has no emissions if the electricity originates from a WWS source. This technology has been around for a while. In 1891, Paul la Cour of Denmark invented a wind turbine that he used to electrolyze water to product hydrogen gas. The hydrogen gas was used to power several hydrogen gas lamps.


According to the Department of Energy, today hydrogen is transported from the point of production to the point of use via pipeline and over the road in cryogenic liquid tanker trucks or gaseous tube trailers. Pipelines are deployed in regions with substantial demand (hundreds of tons per day) that is expected to remain stable for decades. It is expensive and challenging to transport hydrogen safely.


Hydrogen can be stored in storage tanks. It is also pumped into vehicles with equipment like gas pumps.


The Hydrogen Fuel Cell for a ground vehicle combines hydrogen from an onboard storage with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water vapor, and waste heat. The electricity runs an electric motor. The water vapor and waste heat are expelled.


Other processes, such as hydrogen direct reduction process for steel making, can significantly reduce the emissions generated by the process of creating steel.
For more details on all of this, I recommend reading “No Miracles Needed” (subtitled How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air), by Mark Z. Jacobson.


What are the challenges and opportunities?

Hydrogen fuel faces several challenges that must be addressed for widespread adoption. Cost reduction is a crucial factor, as clean hydrogen production currently incurs higher expenses compared to carbon-intensive methods. Furthermore, the development of an extensive and convenient infrastructure for hydrogen production, storage, transportation, and refueling is necessary to support its widespread use. This infrastructure must be economical and safe. Of course, these cost pressures also result in much higher fuel costs for the consumer. The cost of the vehicles themselves are also high compared to electric vehicles, hybrids, and combustible engine powered vehicles.


This is where the U.S. National Clean Hydrogen Strategy Roadmap comes into play. Recognizing these hurdles, the strategy proposes a way forward to overcome them. The roadmap states clean hydrogen could support a 10% reduction in economy-wide emissions by 2050 and create 100,000 jobs by 2030. It realizes these opportunities for clean hydrogen will require lower cost of production, the buildout of midstream infrastructure, and increased hydrogen demand in specific sectors where there are fewer cost-competitive or technically feasible alternatives for decarbonization. Its three key strategies are 1) target strategic, high impact uses for clean hydrogen; 2) reduce the cost of clean hydrogen; and 3) focus on regional networks (building a critical mass of infrastructure).


What does this mean for conservation?

The use of hydrogen fuel and conservation are different means of achieving common goals for addressing climate change. Conservation efforts can further hydrogen fuel action by using hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles, farming equipment, and other industrial equipment. Based on the article World’s First Full Electric Flying Car Approved By FAA Accepting Preorders, is it possible that hydrogen-powered flying hayrides at The Conservation Foundation’s McDonald Farm are just around the corner! In addition, conservation organizations can augment current electricity sources with hydrogen fuel for power, heating, and cooling of buildings and other facilities. Finally, conservation organizations can promote the use of hydrogen fuel to help with air pollution, reduction of emissions, and climate change.


Ready to fight for conservation and a sustainable future? Well, that is what The Conservation Foundation does every day. We can all do more together than we can alone. Join our collective momentum – become a member today!


Feel free to comment on this blog with additional ideas you have on hydrogen fuel and conservation.


By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member


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