What is Hydrogen Energy?

The universe consists of a mixture of a vast array of components. Each component has a vital role in the composition of the world. The most abundant components in the universe include hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. Hydrogen is the most occurring component taking up 75% of the universe, and it plays a greater role in the sustainability of life. Apart from helping other different living species to survive, hydrogen can be utilized to generate energy.

Hydrogen exists in almost all plant matter and also occurs naturally in water. Though the sun has a greater percentage of hydrogen gas, the gas is too light that it virtually disappears from the surface of the earth when conveyed by the sun rays. So, to effectively obtain hydrogen gas, it must be harnessed from water, natural gas or biomass.

Hydrogen is the most basic of all Earth elements. The hydrogen atom is made up of a single proton and a single electron. As such, it is very abundant, but it doesn’t really exist as a separate form of matter. Instead, it is usually combined with other elements. To separate hydrogen gas from its companion substances takes a lot of effort, but it produces a powerful, nearly clean source of energy. As a gas, it can be used in fuel cells to power engines.

Hydrogen gas is extracted from water by a technique known as electrolysis, which involves running a high electric current through water to separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The electrolysis process is pretty expensive since it involves high energy expenditure.

The energy used to generate electricity in the electrolysis process is harnessed from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas or coal. It can also be tapped from renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydropower to ensure there are no greenhouse gas emissions.

Obtaining volumes of hydrogen by this method is still under research to establish a viable method of generating it domestically at a relatively low cost.

Another method of hydrogen gas extraction is steam-methane reforming or steam extraction, which entails the separation of hydrogen atoms in methane from carbon atoms. It is the current technique used to obtain hydrogen gas in vast quantities. The downside to steam-methane reforming is that it emits a lot of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to the atmosphere, which are recipes for global warming.

To obtain electricity from the hydrogen gas, it is conveyed to fuel cells where it combines with oxygen, and the result is a chemical reaction that generates electricity and heat. The hydrogen gas can also just be burned to power vehicle engines. The byproducts of this chemical reaction are water and carbon that is used to produce methane and coal.

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Various Uses of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is generated as a byproduct in Chlor – Alkali industries. Earlier, it was used partly for non-energy applications, and the balance part was either flared or vented out in the atmosphere. Presently byproduct hydrogen was utilized for the production of chemicals and captive (mainly energy) applications.

Hydrogen is produced for non-energy applications, e.g., in fertilizer industries and petroleum refineries. Hydrogen fueled small power generating sets, fuel cell buses, three-wheeler,  two-wheeler (motorcycles), and catalytic combustion systems for residential and industrial sectors have also been developed and demonstrated.

Advantages of Hydrogen Energy

1. It’s a Renewable Energy Source and Bountiful in Supply

Hydrogen is a rich source of energy for many reasons, the main being that it’s bountiful in supply. While it may take a lot of resources to harness it, no other energy source is infinite as hydrogen. That essentially means there is no possibility of it running out like other sources of energy.

2. Numerous Sources to Produce Hydrogen Locally

Hydrogen can be produced either onsite where it will be used or centrally and then distributed. Hydrogen gas can be produced from methane, gasoline, biomass, coal or water. The factors like amounts of pollution, technical challenges, and energy requirements vary depending on the sources used.

3. It is Practically a Clean Energy Source

When hydrogen is burnt to produce fuel, the byproducts are totally safe, which means they have no known side effects. Aeronautical companies actually use hydrogen as a source of drinking water. After hydrogen is utilized, it is normally converted to drinking water for astronauts on ship or space stations.

4. Hydrogen Energy is Non-toxic

It is a non-toxic substance that is rare for a fuel source. This means that it is friendly towards the environment and does not cause any harm or destruction to human health.

This aspect makes it preferred compared to other sources of fuel like nuclear energynatural gas, which are extremely hazardous or daunting to harness safely. It also allows hydrogen to be used in places where other forms of fuel may not be allowed.

5. The Use of Hydrogen Greatly Reduces Pollution

When hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, electricity is produced, which can be used to power vehicles or drive an electric motor as a heat source and for many other uses. When it combines with oxygen, the only byproducts are water and heat, which is the advantage of using hydrogen as an energy carrier.

The use of hydrogen fuel cells does not release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses or other particulates when renewable sources such as water or solar energy are used in the production process.

6. It’s Far More Efficient Than Other Sources of energy

Hydrogen is an efficient energy type since it has the ability to convey a lot of energy for every pound of fuel compared to diesel or gas. This categorically means that an automobile that utilizes hydrogen energy will travel more miles than one with an equal amount of gasoline.

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For example, compared to a conventional combustion-based power plant that usually generates electricity between 33 to 35% efficiency, hydrogen fuel cells are capable of generating electricity of up to 65% efficiency, having capacity about three times more.

7. Used For Powering Space Ships

Hydrogen energy’s efficiency and power make it an ideal fuel source for spaceships.  Its power is so high that it’s able to quickly rocket spaceships to exploration missions.

It’s also the safest form of energy to perform such an energy-intensive task. Hydrogen energy is, in fact, 3 times more potent than gasoline and other fossil-based sources of fuel. This ideally means that you need less hydrogen to complete an enormous task.

It also offers motive power for airplanes, boats, cars, and both portable and stationary fuel cell applications. The downside to using hydrogen in cars is that it’s practically difficult to store in cryogenic or high-pressure tanks.

8. A Sustainable Production System

Electrolysis is a method in which water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen. In this case, renewable energy can be used to power electrolyzers to produce hydrogen from water that provides a sustainable system independent of petroleum products and is also nonpolluting, producing no emissions. Some of the renewable sources used to power electrolyzers are wind, hydro, solar and tidal energy.

After the hydrogen is produced in an electrolyzer, it can be used in a fuel cell to produce electricity. The byproducts generated in the fuel cell process are water and heat. If fuel cells operate at high temperatures, the system can be set up as a co-generator, with the waste energy used for heating.

Disadvantages of Hydrogen Energy

While hydrogen energy has a lot of admirable benefits, it’s not really the outright preferable, clean and cheap energy source for most governments and companies. In the gaseous state, it’s quite volatile.

While its volatility gives it an edge over other energy sources in terms of accomplishing numerous tasks, it equally renders it risky to use and workaround.  Some of the disadvantages of hydrogen energy include:

1. Hydrogen Energy is Expensive

Electrolysis and steam reforming, the two main processes of hydrogen extraction, are extremely expensive. This is the real reason it’s not heavily used across the world. Today, hydrogen energy is chiefly used to power most hybrid vehicles.

A lot of research and innovation is required to discover cheap and sustainable ways to harness this form of energy. Until then, hydrogen energy would remain exclusively for the rich.

2. Storage Complications

One of the hydrogen properties is that it has a lower density. In fact, it is a lot less dense than gasoline. This means that it has to be compressed to a liquid state and stored the same way at lower temperatures to guarantee its effectiveness and efficiency as an energy source.

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This reason also explains why hydrogen must at all times be stored and transported under high pressure, which is why transportation and common use is far from feasible.

3. It’s Not the Safest Source of Energy

The power of hydrogen should not be underestimated at all. Although gasoline is a little more dangerous than hydrogen, hydrogen is a highly flammable and volatile substance that frequently makes headlines for its potential dangers. Compared to gas, hydrogen lacks smell, which makes any leak detection almost impossible. To detect leaks, one must install sensors.

4. Tricky to Move Around

It’s a daunting task to transport hydrogen brilliantly due to its lightness. Oil can be transported safely because it’s mostly pushed through pipes.

Coal can conveniently be transported in dump trucks. Hydrogen also presents challenges when considering moving it in large quantities, which is why it’s mostly transported in small batches only.

5. It is Dependent on Fossil fuels

Hydrogen energy is renewable and has a minimal environmental impact, but its separation from oxygen requires other non-renewable sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. Fossil fuels are still needed to produce hydrogen fuel.

6. Hydrogen Energy Cannot Sustain the Population

Despite the fact that hydrogen is bountiful in supply, the cost of harnessing it limits extensive utilization. As you realize, it’s quite challenging to disrupt the status quo.

Energy from fossil fuels still rules the world. There is also no framework put in place to ensure cheap and sustainable hydrogen energy for the normal car owner in the future.

Even if hydrogen were to become cheap right now, it would take years to become the most used source of energy since vehicles themselves and service stations would need to be customized to conform to hydrogen requirements. This would require massive capital outlay.

It’s a fact that hydrogen energy is a renewable resource because it’s abundantly available, and its impacts hugely neglected. However, hydrogen companies will, in a real sense, need other forms of non-renewable energy such as fossil (coal, natural gas, and oil) to separate it from oxygen. We may be able to minimize over-reliance on fossil fuels when we embrace hydrogen energy, but it will be daunting to get rid of it from the system.

References: 
U.S. DoE
U.S. EPA
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