What are Hydrogen and H2?
Hydrogen (abb. H2) is a key compound for the future of energy on our planet. It is the cleanest energy source thinkable and it is limitless available.
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“The chemical element Hydrogen (abbreviation “H”) has the lightest and smallest atom of all elements, in nature it is commonly prevalent as “H2″, where two Hydrogen atoms are bound together.”
Hydrogen leaves practically no exhaust gases when burned. This makes gas an ideal substitute for coal, oil, and natural gas in industry and transport.
Germany is to take a leading position in hydrogen technology.
Its government wants Germany to become a global role model in the use of novel climate-friendly hydrogen energy. In addition to the current support programs, seven billion euros are to be used to ensure that hydrogen becomes established on the market. Another two billion are planned for international partnerships. The focus here is on so-called green hydrogen, which is produced exclusively with renewable energy.
Hydrogen as a contribution to the energy turnaround
Hydrogen is interesting as an energy carrier because it burns with almost no emissions. However, it needs a lot of energy to split off the molecule H2. Moreover, the necessary infrastructure for this technology is still largely lacking. Legal questions concerning the transport and storage of hydrogen also still need to be clarified.
“Ultimately, it will depend on social acceptance, technological progress and economic efficiency how gas power plants, batteries, hydrogen and possible other technologies settle down”.
Without hydrogen, a flight into space would be unthinkable. Since the 1960s, gas has been the fuel of space travel. In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers then began experimenting with hydrogen and developed the idea of the “hydrogen economy”. Its aim was to develop hydrogen as an energy carrier in order to become independent of fossil fuels coal and oil.
The vision is to use solar and wind power plants to generate electricity which is then used to produce hydrogen. The gas should make it possible to store and transport energy and thus supply both industry and consumers nationwide.
Fans turn into critics
Right from the start, the hydrogen economy also had critics – and not only that: over the years, many a fan has become an opponent. This was the case with Ulf Bossel, for example. In the beginning, the trained mechanical engineer built his own fuel cells out of enthusiasm, but in the meantime, he does not consider the hydrogen economy a good idea anymore, because it does not solve energy problems.
“If you then analyse, calculate all the losses, you quickly come to the conclusion why the hydrogen economy did not exist in the past, why it is difficult today and why it will probably never come in the future: It’s basically a huge energy loss game. And we don’t have energy to lose, we have to see that we use the energy that we generate wisely.”
Hydrogen is a component of water and almost all organic compounds. Hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the universe and is therefore abundant. However, it has the disadvantage that it only occurs in bound form. In order to use hydrogen as an energy carrier, the gas must therefore first be extracted from water or methane. This is done, for example, by electrolysis: In this process, water is separated with electricity into its constituent parts oxygen and hydrogen and the rising gases are captured.
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Hope for the energy turnaround – where green hydrogen comes from
For two years now, the energy world has been discussing one question again and again: What role does the use of green hydrogen play in a successful energy turnaround? The answer is now almost unanimous: a big one. Green hydrogen should become an important part of the new energy world. But where the gas is to be produced does not seem to be clear yet.
Many see in the alternative energy carrier almost the panacea for all problems – whether in industry, traffic, air or the heating sector. However, a new study by the London-based think tank Aurora Energy Research now warns against hype about the popular molecule. Because that could drive up the price.
“If we use green hydrogen for all sectors, its market price will be twice as high as if we only use it in the essential sectors”, explains the study author Alexander Esser in an interview with Handelsblatt. “If you have a lot of renewable energy in your system, there are periods with low prices at which you can produce hydrogen. But these periods become shorter and rarer the more hydrogen you need,” the energy expert analyses.
The so-called Power-to-X technology (PtX) is considered an important building block for the change from a fossil to a renewable energy world. With the help of the current-based electrolysis process, water is split into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be used directly or stored in many parts of the industry.
It can also be converted back into electricity or processed into a gas (for heat) and synthetic fuel (e-fuels). If green electricity is used for electrolysis, the end product is also green. However, PtX projects are still working exclusively on a small scale, mostly in pilot tests and anything but profitable.
Hardly any confidence in the H2 breakthrough
Green hydrogen is still too expensive. However, experts expect that the production of the green alternative will become significantly cheaper if the first projects now take the step towards industrial mass production.
“If it is only used in the essential sectors, green hydrogen can meet demand at acceptable costs”, Esser is also convinced. Nevertheless, electrification is clearly the cheaper alternative, especially for passenger cars and in the heating sector. Esser emphasizes that the demand for hydrogen could then also be met from Europe alone, alluding to the great debate on the potential global import opportunities surrounding the topic of hydrogen.
Many people do not yet believe that the green energy carrier will achieve a major breakthrough because Germany cannot produce enough electricity to cover its own hydrogen requirements – but importing the molecule over long distances would result in too many efficiency losses.
However, the experts from the management consultancy Arthur D. Little see things differently. At the same time as Aurora Energy Research, the London-based company has also published a study on hydrogen. “The discussion about where hydrogen is best used is unnecessary because you can produce any amount of green hydrogen outside Europe”, energy expert Klaus Schmitz from Arthur D. Little is convinced.
Hydrogen from Africa
The calculation is relatively simple: a solar module that is located in a good location in Africa generates on average twice as much energy as a solar module in Germany due to the high solar radiation. If the solar electricity is converted into green hydrogen on-site in Africa and imported to Germany by means of a tanker truck or pipeline and then converted back into electricity here, the efficiency losses compared to domestic production would be limited to two percent, the authors calculate.
“When hydrogen is transported, for example from Africa, energy is lost, but this is energy that we would not have otherwise obtained,” says Schmitz. “We have had to import energy for a long time. That will remain the case, and it makes sense. With the nuclear and coal phase-out, Germany in particular will have to face the question of how and from what sources the demand for energy can be met.
In fact, the dream of green hydrogen from Africa’s desert is merely the further development of a vision that has long been cherished: Desertec. With a fraction of the desert area, almost a quarter of Europe’s electricity demand should be covered. RWE, Eon, Siemens, the Deutsche Bank, ABB and others scented a billion euro business. Together they formed the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII). But the project literally came to nothing. There was disagreement about the direction, costs, and goal of the project.
Now the German government also speaks of “international energy partnerships” in its “National Hydrogen Strategy”. Federal Development Minister Gerd Müller has already agreed on the first partnership with Morocco: “We are now developing the first industrial plant for green hydrogen in Africa together with Morocco”.
However, green hydrogen from Africa’s desert is still a dream of the future, similar to the Desertec initiative.