Powering the Future – Will Hydrogen Help our Heated Planet?

The hydrogen revolution is in its infancy – the tasteless, colourless, non-toxic gas is often cited as being the ‘fuel of the future’ and a ‘next-generation’ fuel resource. With increased investment in hydrogen innovation and infrastructure, there is potential for this natural gas to not only supply our energy needs, but also to reduce carbon emissions and therefore contribute to a cleaner, greener planet.

Hydrogen and its future potential were hot topics at the UN Climate Conference, COP26, held in Glasgow in November 2021. Nations outlined their hydrogen plans, pledges and strategies to reduce carbon emissions, and there were numerous discussions and events about the use of hydrogen as an energy source.

Addressing world leaders at COP26, Fortescue Future Industries CEO Julie Shuttleworth stated that ‘green hydrogen is the practical, implementable solution that will decarbonise heavy industry and create jobs globally’. Indeed, one of the Glasgow Breakthroughs – ambitious government-led Breakthroughs (clean technology plans) announced at COP26 – is for affordable, renewable and low carbon hydrogen to be globally available by 2030 (the other targets include the key sectors of power, road transport, steel and agriculture).

At first glance, the wonder fuel argument is convincing. However, there are concerns about hydrogen’s true ‘green’ credentials, with so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen (generated from non-renewable energy sources where carbon and methane are created as by-products during production) still causing harmful emissions and using vast amounts of energy to produce.

Quick Q&A

What is hydrogen (H2)?

The ‘bubbles’ of hydro-gen (derived from Greek meaning ‘water-former’) were first discovered by the English scientist Henry Cavendish in 1766. It is number 1 in the Periodic Table, has the lowest density of all gases and is the most abundant element in the universe, estimated to contribute 75% of its mass.

Why is hydrogen classed as a clean fuel source?

In the simplest sense, when hydrogen is burnt to produce fuel, water vapour is the only waste product, whereas when methane is burnt to produce natural gas, carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) is emitted as a waste product. However, when creating hydrogen fuel, there are ‘grey’, ‘blue’ and ‘green’ versions, with varying degrees of harmful emissions generated from the production processes.

What are the grey, blue and green forms of hydrogen?

A study published in August 2021 (How green is blue hydrogen?) defines ‘grey’ hydrogen as being the ‘steam reforming of methane in natural gas… [which has] high carbon dioxide emissions’. The authors outline how ‘blue’ hydrogen is touted as being a ‘low emission’ fuel but may in fact be more polluting when considering the production lifecycle, accounting ‘for emissions of both carbon dioxide and unburned fugitive methane’.

Hydrogen can be produced from clean and renewable energy resources (eg wind, hydro and solar) through the process of electrolysis of water to separate hydrogen and oxygen. This is termed ‘green’ hydrogen. To complicate matters, there is also natural (or ‘white’) hydrogen. This hydrogen gas is continuously produced in the Earth’s crust and can be captured directly by drilling wells, as has happened in Mali.

Why is hydrogen fuel not used more widely and what are the issues with its production and use?

Natural gas is easily sourced, offers a ‘cleaner’ alternative to coal and other fossil fuels, and is economical. Hydrogen is still expensive to extract and does not yet have the appropriate infrastructure in place to produce it at scale. More research is needed in the areas of generation, storage, transportation, transition and end usage as a low-carbon fuel in daily life (eg for transport and heating appliances).

A 2020 Imperial College London study has found that ‘transitioning from natural gas to hydrogen for heating could help the UK to reach 2050 [carbon neutrality] targets’, however, the initial costs could be prohibitive, with the setting up and running costs of hydrogen-based heating being ‘as much as three times that of natural gas’.

An innovative trial has taken the use of hydrogen one step further. HyDeploy ran the first UK project to trial the merging of hydrogen into a natural gas network. A 20% blend of hydrogen with natural gas was compatible with existing appliances on a private gas network at Keele University for a trial period of 18 months, ending in spring 2021. HyDeploy says that this could ‘help Britain dramatically cut its carbon emissions and open the door to a low-carbon hydrogen economy’.

Green hydrogen is currently more expensive to produce than grey or blue hydrogen, but this could change in the future as renewables reduce in price. Larger energy companies as well as start-ups are also pursuing the potential of white hydrogen, including exploring optimal locations for its extraction.

Pledging to Accelerate the Hydrogen Transition

Given the increasing global interest in hydrogen energy, it is unsurprising that national and regional governments have moved to accelerate and capitalise on advances in the technology. First proposed in July 2020, the European Union (EU) Hydrogen Strategy established hydrogen research as a key priority for achieving targets set out in the European Green Deal.

The priority for the EU is to produce green hydrogen through wind and solar energy. Hydrogen research is not only crucial to achieve the EU’s climate neutrality and zero pollution goals but is also economically critical. Indeed, hydrogen research will create new jobs and economic growth throughout the Union and will ‘support a cost-effective integrated energy system’.

The EU aims to invest up to €470 billion by 2050 on hydrogen research and has identified three phases for its development. By 2024, the EU aims to produce up to 1 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen, significantly increasing to 10 million tonnes by 2030 while installing at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers. From 2030 to 2050, renewable hydrogen technologies should reach maturity and be produced at a large scale to help the decarbonisation of several sectors.

The European Commission also launched the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance in July 2020 in order to support investments and the growth of a hydrogen ecosystem within the Union. The Alliance will associate industries, public authorities, civil society and other stakeholders. In addition, according to the EU official document, most Member States had included plans for decarbonated hydrogen in their National Energy and Climate Plans, with some adopting national strategies from 2020 such as France.

In November 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the employees of Genvia in Béziers, a company that is mobilising significant resources on green hydrogen research. The President stated that ‘the battle for hydrogen is a battle for industry, a battle for travelling, a battle for ecology and a battle for [French] sovereignty’ thus reinforcing the importance of hydrogen research for the current French government.

In France, research on low-carbon hydrogen constitutes one of the government’s priorities as their ambition is to make France a world leader in green hydrogen. Presented by Macron on 12 October 2021, le plan d’investissement France 2030 (France 2030 investment plan) should accelerate the development of the French National Strategy for carbon-free hydrogen, which was launched on 8 September 2020. Indeed, the plan will add around €2 billion to the €7 billion already devoted as part of the strategy.

Research on carbon-free hydrogen has also been the source of various calls for projects in France. For instance, towards the end of 2021 the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR – National Research Agency) launched a call within the framework of Priority Research Programmes and Equipment (PEPR) for carbon-free hydrogen. The call aimed to support upstream R&D activities (TRL between 1 and 4) at the highest global level, providing at least €15 million to achieve this aim. In January 2022, the ANR also launched a call focussing on socioeconomic analysis and impact studies, in addition to the analysis of the life cycles of hydrogen systems.

Funding the Future of Hydrogen Research

Such calls are part of a wider trend among funders to support the innovation needed to ensure hydrogen use reaches its full potential.

Breakthrough Energy Catalyst (BEC) funds commercial stage demonstration projects by bringing together stakeholders to increase the availability and scale of low-carbon technologies. In partnership with the European Commission and European Investment Bank, BEC aims to accelerate the deployment and rapid commercialisation of innovative technologies that will help meet European Green Deal ambitions and achieve the EU’s 2030 climate target. One of the funding areas is ‘Clean Hydrogen’ – the manufacturing of hydrogen using methods that reduce carbon emissions compared to traditional steam methane reforming (especially projects deploying electrolysis using renewable energy). Funding is available for applicants in EU Member States, Iceland and Norway.

Submissions are invited from consortia of universities, research institutes and small and large industries based in over 40 EUREKA member countries and EUROGIA supporting countries for low carbon technology projects through the EUROGIA2030 initiative. EUREKA is a pan-European network initiative for promoting near-market collaborative research in advanced technology and EUROGIA2030 is the EUREKA Cluster for low carbon technologies. It supports and promotes international partnerships developing innovative projects in the renewable energy and low carbon energy fields. The challenges of interest include hydrogen technologies and storage.

In Germany, Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF – Federal Ministry for Education and Research) set up the International Projects on Green Hydrogen scheme in the context of the German government’s National Hydrogen Strategy. It funds international collaborative research projects in the field of green hydrogen that bring together partners from Germany and abroad. In addition, and again working within the context of the Strategy, BMBF has linked with Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi – German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy) to jointly support international cooperation in the field of green hydrogen through the International Hydrogen Projects initiative.

For collaborative projects carried out by researchers in Scotland and Germany in the areas of green hydrogen, hydrogen storage, and hydrogen distribution and transport, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) launched the Scotland-Germany Hydrogen Research Scheme. The scheme aims to inform Scottish Government policy objectives and support Scotland’s Hydrogen Action Plan, thereby leading the way towards a decarbonised future. In the UK, the Hydrogen BECCS Innovation Programme seeks to support the development of technologies to produce hydrogen generated via BECCS – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

Continuing with the green and low-carbon needs of hydrogen use, the ANR in France provides funding to French public research consortia focusing on carbon-free hydrogen through the Priority Exploratory Research Programmes and Equipment: Carbon-Free Hydrogen scheme.

Hydrogen Europe

Horizon Europe, the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation for 2021-2027, will support a wide range of hydrogen actions covering all stages of the project life cycle. The Climate, Energy and Mobility cluster of Pillar II (Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness) is especially relevant to hydrogen research activities.

This cluster includes the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, an institutionalised public-private partnership to roll out hydrogen technologies at scale, building on previous achievements of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertakings (funded by Horizon 2020). The EU will provide nearly €10 billion of funding from Horizon Europe that partners will match with at least an equivalent amount of investment. It aims to accelerate development and deployment of European clean hydrogen technologies, contributing to a sustainable, decarbonised and fully integrated energy system. It will focus on production, distribution and storage of clean hydrogen to supply hard to decarbonise sectors such as heavy industries and heavy-duty transport applications.

Also new for Horizon Europe are the EU Missions. Each mission will operate as a portfolio of actions such as research projects, policy measures or even legislative initiatives, to achieve a measurable goal that could not be achieved through individual actions. The Commission has highlighted two missions as being of interest for organisations involved in hydrogen research:

  • Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities will deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030 and ensure that these cities act as experimentation and innovation hubs to enable all European cities to follow suit by 2050. The EU believes hydrogen technologies can assist in the systemic transformation towards climate neutrality by 2030 and turn these cities into innovation hubs for all cities, benefiting quality of life and sustainability in Europe.
  • Restore Our Ocean and Waters by 2030 aims to restore ecosystems and biodiversity, eliminate pollution, and make the blue economy carbon-neutral and circular. Possible actions include offshore renewable energy, maritime transport, port activities and shipbuilding – all suitable for hydrogen research activity and applications.

Speaking at European Hydrogen Week in November 2021, Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission, said that Europe had to be ‘proactive and daring’ with hydrogen and ‘take a clear lead in establishing a framework for a global hydrogen economy’.

Will the Hydrogen Bubble Burst?

Hydrogen’s status as an emerging fuel is evidenced by its high profile at COP26, presence in national government strategies and the continuing commitment by funders to advance hydrogen research through their funding activities.

However, complex issues remain around hydrogen and its use continues to divide opinion. To some, hydrogen will help to decarbonise the fuel industry, whereas others have already turned their back on it. For example, car and passenger vehicle manufacturers in the UK state that the demand for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles has dropped significantly due to high costs and an inadequate fuelling infrastructure. Clearly, further research is needed to discover and utilise the true potential and environmental benefits (or otherwise) of hydrogen use.

Whatever the outcome, research and innovation will drive the debate and create new collaborative opportunities for the international research community. As new strategies and investments are rolled out, ResearchConnect will report on the funding and policy that will support clean and green innovation on the road to net zero.