Green Hydrogen (H2) has many advantages. It is non-toxic, can be stored, distributed via pipelines and contains almost three times as much energy per kilogram as petrol or diesel. And when hydrogen (H) in a fuel cell reacts with oxygen (O) from the air to produce electricity, the result is nothing but H2O, pure water. Sounds fantastic, which is why the Federal Government is also supporting all kinds of ideas and programmes with a lot of money with the National Hydrogen Strategy.
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Hydrogen in Germany and in the EU
The German government and the EU Commission want to provide more support for hydrogen projects and have developed a decent Hydrogen strategy. This is necessary, because not all hydrogen types are reasonable at the same time. Please follow our little theory of colours, because Hydrogen energy is getting colourful. We are starting with grey hydrogen, go to green hydrogen, blue hydrogen, turquoise hydrogen and even coloured hydrogen.
Advantages of Hydrogen
This is also necessary, because hydrogen as an energy carrier has not yet found mass distribution anywhere. This is because the volatile gas is highly explosive. But also because most hydrogen has so far only been produced from natural gas with high greenhouse gas emissions: This is called gray hydrogen. But to contribute to the energy turnaround, there would have to be green, maybe even blue, turquoise or even coloured hydrogen. What is that? We explain it.
How is it produced? Grey hydrogen is produced from natural gas in so-called steam reformers, large plants of the chemical industry. The process has been in use for decades, producing well over 90 percent of the hydrogen consumed worldwide.
What is its ecological balance sheet? In the production process, the carbon is released from the natural gas and blown into the air as CO2. If hydrogen produced in this way is burned or converted into electricity with a fuel cell, this causes much greater climate damage than would have been caused by the direct use of natural gas. As an energy carrier, grey hydrogen is therefore only used in niches, especially when the aim is to achieve the highest possible energy content per kilogram, for example in rocket propulsion.
What does it cost? Grey hydrogen is expensive and is only used as a raw material in the chemical and metal industry, as a coolant or for the production of fertiliser if there is no cheaper alternative. Is it a contribution to the energy turnaround? No.
Does it have a future? Although the efficiency of production could be increased somewhat, this does not change the fundamental environmental damage. Grey hydrogen has no place in a climate-neutral economy.
How is it made? So-called electrolysers use electricity to split water into its constituent parts oxygen and hydrogen. The plants are technically advanced and are available in a wide range of sizes – from industrial scale to small appliances the size of a refrigerator. The most common are electrolyzers that fit into a standard container. But there are also some large plants with a capacity of over 100 megawatts in the planning stage.
Hydrogen produced in this way is only called green if the electricity used comes exclusively from renewable sources, i.e. from wind farms, solar plants, hydro or geothermal power plants. Hydrogen could be produced particularly efficiently in offshore wind farms and then transported away in tankers or pipelines. There are plans for pilot plants, but so far no energy company has ventured to build them.
What is his ecological balance sheet? Green hydrogen is as environmentally friendly as the electricity from which it was produced. However, transport consumes a lot of energy, because hydrogen has to be strongly cooled or compressed. But when it is used, no more pollutants are produced. The exhaust of a hydrogen car actually produces pure water.
What does it cost? Green hydrogen is currently still more than twice as expensive as grey hydrogen. However, experts assume that the price will at least halve by 2050 due to improved technology, mass production and falling electricity prices. Then, however, it will still be more expensive than natural gas, petrol or diesel at today’s prices for the same energy content.
Is it a contribution to energy system transformation? Only where there is neither an electricity connection nor electricity from rechargeable batteries can be used sensibly, for example in air, sea or heavy goods traffic. Even in the production of green hydrogen, i.e. electrolysis, around a quarter of the electrical energy used is lost. The gas must then be compressed, transported and converted back into electricity in a fuel cell. In the end, only 20 percent of the electrical energy originally used can be used. If, on the other hand, the electricity were to be temporarily stored in a battery, more than 80 percent would still be available.
Where electricity is generated in abundance and cannot be used sensibly, its conversion into hydrogen is a storage option. Hydrogen storage systems are to make a contribution to so-called sector coupling. This involves the merging of the electricity industry with heating and cooling generation, industrial processes and transport. If wind farms play the main role in electricity generation in the future, the supply will far exceed the demand when wind conditions are good. In order not to overload the grid, many wind turbines would have to be switched off. On a smaller scale, this is already the case today. In future, the surplus is to be used in sector coupling to produce green hydrogen, which can then be used or stored as a substitute for oil and gas and converted back into electricity when needed.
Does it have a future? Experts expect that today’s efficiency in the production, storage, transport and use of green hydrogen can be doubled with improved technology. In the future, green hydrogen could also be produced in special photovoltaic cells or entirely without electricity in so-called solar towers. Here, many mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on a furnace in which water is heated to over 1,000 degrees Celsius, splitting it into its components oxygen and hydrogen. A pilot plant has shown that the technology works, but it is still too expensive.
How is it made? Like grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas by steam reforming. However, the CO2 that is produced does not escape into the atmosphere. It is captured and injected into suitable geological formations deep underground, for example into depleted offshore natural gas fields.
What is its ecological balance? If the captured CO2 remains underground for a long time, blue hydrogen is just as climate-friendly as green hydrogen. Norway has already had experience with CO2 storage in depleted natural gas fields for several decades. The process is called CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage). In Germany, it was heavily disputed because of possible CO2 emissions and was banned in 2012 except for small research projects.
What does it cost? Norwegian calculations assume that blue hydrogen can be produced much cheaper than green hydrogen. A pilot project in cooperation with the German steel industry is to show that.
Is it a contribution to the energy turnaround? Blue hydrogen could play an important role in the decades-long transition phase from fossil fuels to a CO2-free energy economy. Norway wants to use blue hydrogen to secure its revenues from natural gas production in the long term.
Does it have a future? Although pilot plants already exist for all the elements needed to produce and distribute blue hydrogen, their industrial interaction has not yet been tested. Such a large-scale project could lead to increased efficiency and lower costs.
How is it made? Turquoise hydrogen is also produced from natural gas, but with a different chemical process than grey or blue hydrogen, so-called high-temperature methane pyrolysis. This process does not produce climate-damaging CO2, but solid carbon, which can be reused in the chemical and electronics industry.
What is its ecological balance? That depends primarily on how the large amounts of process heat required for production are generated. If this heat is already available, the life cycle assessment would be as good as for green or blue hydrogen. If, on the other hand, the heat had to be generated specifically, turquoise hydrogen would be as harmful to the environment as grey hydrogen. Therefore, the production and use of turquoise hydrogen will probably be limited to large industrial plants with a surplus of process heat.
What does it cost? If the production of turquoise hydrogen can be sensibly integrated into industrial processes, it is cheaper than green or grey hydrogen.
Is it a contribution to the energy turnaround? It is possible, even if the contribution is unlikely to be very large.
Does it have a future? Although the fundamentals of methane pyrolysis have been known for a long time, there is no large-scale industrial application of the process so far. Therefore, there is still room for significant efficiency gains and cost reductions.