Hydrogen's extreme makeover  

Posted by Big Gav in

Giles Parkinson at The Climate Spectator has a look at the evolving hydrogen economy - Hydrogen's extreme makeover.

Hydrogen fuel is one of those technologies that has always seemed to be at least a decade away from realisation, ever since the term hydrogen economy was first coined in the early 1970s.

Last year, it seemed even further away, after US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu slashed funding for hydrogen fuel cell research, complaining that “we don’t know how to make it, we don’t know how to store it, and we don’t know how to use it.”

But then something happened. Within months, Chu had restored at least past of the slashed funding, and nine global car manufacturers signed an memorandum of understanding to develop hydrogen-powered passenger cars. Germany then committed to having at least 100 hydrogen refueling stations by 2015 and at least 1,000 by 2020, Japan also has announced an ambitious program, and California predicts there could be 50,000 hydrogen powered cars on the state’s roads by 2018.

The hydrogen economy is suddenly back on the agenda – although it does appear to have had something of a sex change. The HE (hydrogen economy) has become a SHE (sustainable hydrogen economy), and the devilish problem of creating hydrogen by reforming natural gas (and releasing huge amounts of CO2) or by the energy-intensive process of electrolysing water (and so creating oxygen and hydrogen), is being addressed by trying to make it an integral part of the roll-out of renewable energy.

“There is a great lack of understanding of where hydrogen energy can fit in to sustainable energy economy, both in Australia and globally,” says John Andrew, a senior lecturer from the school of aerospace, mechanical and manufacturing engineering at RMIT University. “It’s time to take a look at that vision again."

Andrews says one of the new approaches to hydrogen as a “renewable fuel” is based around a decentralised model, rather than centralised system of production and distribution. Production of hydrogen would come exclusively from renewable sources such as wave and tidal, as well as solar and wind. And, because it can be easily stored, it could be used to either “smooth” the output of wind turbines, used as a long-term back-up source of power, and as a compliment to battery storage.

He even sees the potential for using bulk hydrogen as a strategic energy reserve. “Instead of putting carbon dioxide underground, we’d much prefer to make hydrogen from renewables and store that underground.”

Hydrogen is also making progress as a transport fuel, but it is very much a question of cost – not so much in its making but in its distribution. It lends itself more easily to use in “heavy vehicles” such as medium to long distance bus travel, and WalMart has successfully trialled 150 forklifts that use hydrogen fuel cells and found it to be cheaper and more efficient than rival technologies.

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