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Hydrogen (German “Wasserstoff” and Africans “Waterstof”) is present on earth in almost unlimited quantities, but almost exclusively in chemical compounds (water, acids, hydrocarbons and other organic compounds). Hydrogen is a colorless and odorless gas and with a specific weight of 0.0899 g/l compared to air it is a lightweight. Rule of thumb: 1 kg of hydrogen contains as much energy as 2.8 kg of gasoline.

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The element hydrogen

Hydrogen is not an energy source but an energy carrier that can be used to store and transport energy. Hydrogen is therefore a secondary energy, since primary energy must first be used for its production in all production methods. Environmentally friendly energy production using hydrogen only takes place when the hydrogen is produced using regenerative energy sources.

Hydrogen production

The most developed processes for the production of hydrogen are the reformation process and water electrolysis.

  • Reforming process
    Most of today’s hydrogen production occurs as a by-product in chemical industry processes, where it is also mostly consumed again. On an industrial scale, hydrogen is currently produced mainly by reforming natural gas. However, light hydrocarbons from other sources can also be used, such as gasoline, coal, methanol or biomass. In the various reforming processes, hydrogen is removed from the fossil energy carriers consisting of hydrocarbon chains in several steps. By-products include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
  • Water electrolysis
    Another already common production process is electrolysis. In electrolysis, water (H2O) is mixed with a liquid that enables ion transport. Using electricity, water is broken down into its components hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). In the process, the electrical energy is converted into chemical energy and stored in the hydrogen. In a fuel cell, the reverse principle can be used to recover the energy previously stored chemically in the hydrogen back into electrical energy.

Other production methods include the fermentation of biomass, the Kvæner process and the production of hydrogen from green algae. However, these technologies are still in the trial phase.

Storage of hydrogen

Hydrogen is relatively easy to transport as an energy carrier. Like natural gas, hydrogen can be stored compressed under high pressure or in liquid form. Pressurized storage tanks are available in a variety of designs, from ten-liter gas cylinders to large storage tanks with 100,000 cubic meters. Tank pressures of 700 bar are being tested for fuel cell cars. There are also other storage options that are still being developed. There are basically three different ways of storing hydrogen: gaseously in pressure vessels, in liquid form in vacuum-insulated containers, and as storage in metals at the molecular level.

Hydrogen economy

Hydrogen is an important industrial product. It is the starting element in the synthesis of ammonia, the refining of petroleum, the synthesis of methanol, and in many metallurgical manufacturing processes. The importance of hydrogen in the energy industry is also steadily increasing. Currently, the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier is being tested in connection with fuel cell systems in a wide variety of areas. These include the automotive and marine industries, portable power supplies for electrical appliances and camping, and applications in small power plants.

The advantage of hydrogen as an energy carrier is its storability and transportability, although there are still some problems to be solved for a functioning hydrogen economy. For example, the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels produces carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. Problems for a market introduction include the short service life, the area-wide supply (e.g. hydrogen filling stations), emissions during production, the weight of some storage media, and the still relatively high costs. For stationary fuel cells, natural gas is an energy source that can be used in almost every home. For mobile use of fuel cells, supply is still a crucial aspect. So far, for example, there is no hydrogen filling station network in Germany. Without these hydrogen filling stations, it will be difficult for the technology to gain acceptance in the automotive sector (more information on alternative fuels like biodiesel, pure vegetable oil, natural gas, and autogas). Likewise, there will probably not be a nationwide network of refueling stations until fuel cell cars are ready for series production.