The term ‘hydrogen economy’ was formulated about the use of hydrogen as a source of energy to replace the current reliance on fossil fuel. In the 1970s, the need for clean energy and the rising cost of fossil fuels led to a spirited search for a cleaner but more efficient source of power. Hydrogen became a top candidate for replacing fossil fuels because it has lower rates of pollution due to its higher efficiency and fewer emissions. The overall conceptualization is that the hydrogen economy can alleviate the environmental pressures of relying on fossil fuels as the main energy source. The main concern with a hydrogen economy is in ensuring that the production of hydrogen fuel is backed up by other infrastructures that can support the packaging, storage, handling, and transportation of this energy source. Since its discovery, scientists have only managed to master the production of hydrogen but the other supporting factors are yet to be harnessed. Most of the current methods of hydrogen production only emit carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as by-products. Even though the hydrogen economy is still a conceivable notion, several challenges stand in the way of its full adoption. Lack of supporting infrastructure ranks top amongst these problems with possible lack of goodwill from fossil fuel stakeholders being another possible deterrent. This essay explores the various obstacles to a hydrogen economy including lack of research breakthroughs in supporting infrastructure, the existence of conflicting interests, and the political elements among other issues.
Background and History of the Concept
The concept of using hydrogen as a source of energy dates back to the late nineteenth century, after the discovery of the element in 1766. The most practical application for hydrogen has been in the manufacture of fertilizer and its use in hydrogenated fats to harden food items. However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hydrogen began being used as an energy source for lifting hot air balloons and other forms of flying apparatus. Hydrogen economy as a concept was first suggested in the nineteenth century by various pioneer scientists. Nevertheless, the proposals to turn hydrogen into fuel were based on the newly discovered process of electrolysis.
The practical use of hydrogen power was started by the United States’ NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). During the space revolution that happened between the 1950s and 1960s, NASA found the use of hydrogen cells in spacecraft because this energy source was both compact and quiet. It is reported that the astronauts of the Apollo rocket used the byproducts of the hydrogen cells as drinking water. Nevertheless, it was difficult to have commercial uses for NASA’s hydrogen cells because they were too costly (Bockris, 2013). The debate on climate change and environmental degradation in the 1960s led stakeholders to explore alternatives to fuel energy. Furthermore, pundits had theorized that oil and natural gas deposits would run out shortly. On the other hand, the idea of hustle-free and natural sources of energy such as the sun, wind, and water moved from being a science-fiction issue to being a real-life possibility. These alternatives could eliminate greenhouse emissions.
The concept of the hydrogen economy as it is known today is the brainchild of chemist John Bockris when he described the possibility of the world relying on hydrogen as the main source of energy in 1970. Growing scientific evidence on the concept of global warming led to the push for a hydrogen economy in the 1990s. Consequently, the concept of a hydrogen economy began attracting a wide range of stakeholders including energy scientists, governments, and environmentalists. Since then, the concept of a hydrogen economy continues to be a subject of active debate.
Current and Future Issues in the Hydrogen Economy
The hydrogen economy has been gaining momentum beginning in the early 2000s and its production levels peaked in 2004, with approximately fifty-seven million metric tons being produced annually. The United States alone accounts for the production of approximately eleven million tons of hydrogen per year. The financial value of an annual hydrogen economy is estimated to stand at about $150 billion in 2012 (Dincer & Acar, 2015). Interest in the hydrogen economy peaked in the period beginning in 2001 to 2009. Since then hydrogen has become part of normal operations during the process to make ammonia for making fertilizers, and as an agent in the conversion of petroleum products through the hydrocracking process. Hydrocracking provides an avenue for growth in the hydrogen economy because less refined petroleum requires this method of synthesis.
Experts have observed that the current rates of hydrocracking use in the US stand at 4 metric tons per year. However, to achieve a hydrogen economy, the US would require approximately 37.7 metric tons of hydrocracking annually. Utilizing hydrogen at half the aforementioned rates would mean that the US no longer relies on oil from the Middle East. The current raw materials for hydrogen economy include natural gas, coal, oil, and water electrolysis. Statistics indicate that “Coal accounts for approximately 18% of global hydrogen, oil accounts for approximately 30%, natural gas accounts for approximately 48%, while water electrolysis provides only 4% of global hydrogen production” (Rand & Dell, 2012, p. 69). Natural gas has been observed to be the most effective and clean source of hydrogen production in the world. Another issue in the production of hydrogen involves using energy from other cleaner sources such as wind, nuclear power, and solar power. Relying on these elements in the production of hydrocarbon would potentially grow the hydrogen economy by a factor of between 5 and 10.
Several government pledges towards a hydrogen economy have been made in recent times. For example, “in January 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a $1.3 billion federal Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (about $250 million a year over five years) to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and improve air quality” (Lattin & Utgikar, 2014, p. 34). The European Union (EU) has also made similar pledges in recent times. Some governments in Europe such as Iceland are committed to the elimination of carbon emissions especially when it comes to transport. To accomplish this goal, Iceland built a hydrogen fuelling station to fuel city buses in 2003.
Obstacles to the Hydrogen Economy
Several energy experts have noted that a hydrogen economy might end up being wasteful in the long run (Rifkin, 2003). For instance, one school of thought is of the view that there is a large amount of energy that is used in the production process. This wastage comes from the energy used when isolating hydrogen from natural compounds, packaging the compressed gas as a liquid, guaranteeing that the hydrogen carriers get to the end-users, and converting hydrogen to electricity using fuel cells. All these stages of wastage only leave approximately 25% of the energy for practical production. Furthermore, it only makes sense to utilize hydrogen in special applications such as submarines and space shuttles. Natural gas is the most viable raw material for hydrogen production at about 50% efficiency rates. However, if all hydrogen production relied on natural compounds, this strategy would lead to increased demand for natural gas and subsequent carbon dioxide emissions (Dincer & Acar, 2015).
Another physical challenge to the hydrogen economy involves the physics of storing this energy source. The machinery that is using the energy has to have a storage unit for hydrogen, most likely in its liquefied state. On the other hand, this storage capacity would determine the operating range of any machine that is using hydrogen. For example, a car’s hydrogen carrying capacity would determine how many miles that it can travel before it is refueled. On large scale, there is still a challenge when it comes to storing hydrogen for consumption purposes. Proposals have been made to store hydrogen in underground caves or exhausted oil fields. The fuel cells that are used to convert hydrogen into raw energy have to have high levels of hydrogen purity, a factor that makes them expensive to make and maintain.
These storage challenges are small but they are part of the bigger problem about the hydrogen economy; infrastructure. An infrastructure that would fully support the hydrogen economy would consist of several bits and pieces. These components would include industrial-sized transportation pipes and filling stations, and these would, in turn, form the hydrogen economy’s network. The fuelling stations that are not within the network would have their supplies delivered by trucks and other forms of ground transportation. One possible solution to this problem is utilizing the current natural gas pipelines in the transportation of hydrogen. However, this option is challenged by the fact that it would require massive clean-ups and retrofits to accommodate the carriage of hydrogen through natural gas pipelines (Larcher & Tarascon, 2015). Los Angeles is one of the cities that feature various hydrogen petrol stations, but it has always been a challenge for these city networks to be linked to other city-states. The goal of having a fuelling station every five miles throughout the road networks comes with an enormous cost to the stakeholders of the hydrogen economy.
Other obstacles are because Hydrogen as an element is quite unsafe due to its extremely flammable nature. Consequently, a substantial hydrogen leak would most likely result in an explosion. Hydrogen is often transferred in underground tunnels or tanks, which pose substantial safety hazards in case of gas leaks. Environmentalists have cited the fact that hydrogen is difficult to detect in the air and this means its leaks into the atmosphere could go undetected. Furthermore, there is a possibility of hydrogen that is made from fossil fuels to contribute to higher emissions of greenhouse gasses. If global hydrogen is continuously leaked into the atmosphere even in small amounts, it can lead to further damage to the ozone layer. For instance, scientists have argued that in the event of a global hydrogen economy, approximately 10-20% of the total production would leak into the environment (Acar & Dincer, 2014). Supporters of the hydrogen economy have countered this argument by citing the emissions that are produced by a hydrogen economy.
Political will is another factor that applies to the hydrogen economy. Pundits have raised concern with the political will of leaders across the world when it comes to the achievement of a global economy. For instance, oil and its related businesses are all well represented within political ranks through the use of lobbyists and other external influences. The main goal of a hydrogen economy is to reduce oil imports and the resulting carbon dioxide emissions. However, if this goal is achieved it will drive big oil companies out of business. The concerns of oil stakeholders influencing the adoption of a hydrogen economy have always been refuted with the argument that there are viable alternatives to oil and nothing makes hydrogen special to its opponents. Therefore, opposition from oil stakeholders cannot have any significant impact on the realizations of a hydrogen economy.
Future Research Priorities
There are several key obstacles on the route towards the achievement of a hydrogen economy. Researchers and other stakeholders are expected to seek solutions to the obstacles that were discussed in the previous section for hydrogen economies to become attractive options. However, their efforts have to focus on specific areas of research and development. The first area of focus involves developing an effective fuel cell. Most of the existing options have several issues including short lifetimes and high costs. For instance, solving this problem would mean that hydrogen cars are more effective than those running on gasoline. Future research has to consider the fact that “the challenge with today’s industrial hydrogen as well as tomorrow’s hydrogen is the high cost of distributing the energy source to dispersed locations” (Ball & Wietschel, 2009). Therefore, several technological innovations are pending if the hydrogen economy is to become a reality.
Another important research milestone involves achieving a reduction in the costs of hydrogen production from renewable energy sources. It is important to note that the production of electricity from renewable resources has made significant strides in terms of research. Similar milestones are required for hydrogen economies to become a reality. Furthermore, the ability to produce hydrogen from renewable sources turns hydrogen economies from being concepts and into being realities. Future research also requires insight into viable methods of harnessing or sequestering carbon dioxide from various hydrogen production processes. Currently, coal is the most environmentally unfriendly source of hydrogen energy in the US. A top priority for most scientists is in coming up with ways of dealing with byproducts of hydrogen production remains.
Likely, the dream of a hydrogen economy is farther than it was earlier thought. The process of transitioning from the current fossil fuel economy is subject to a myriad of challenges. Efficient use of hydrogen in cars provides the most viable entry point into this type of economy. The process of producing hydrogen is a major point of concern for advocates of the hydrogen economy. It is up to researchers to solve the most glaring obstacles to hydrogen within the next few decades. A solution to some of these obstacles is set to make a hydrogen economy not just a conceivable idea but also a competitive one.
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