Let’s take a look at some chemistry first. Don’t worry, please stick with it and there are no tests. Hydrogen is the first element of the periodic table and its atomic number is 1. It is a clear, colorless, odorless and highly combustible gas. Also of note, hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe and comprises approximately 75% of all matter. It exists as a two-hydrogen molecule and is a powerful source of energy. The equation here (1) shows that when hydrogen (H2) is combined with oxygen, a large amount of energy is released (kj/mol) along with a by-product, water (H2O). This energy can then be used in a variety of ways, including the generation of electricity.
(1) H2 + O2 –> H2O + 572 kJ (286 kJ/mol)
(This equation can also be read: hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce >>> water and energy)
The attraction and interest of using hydrogen in this way is that no carbon dioxide (CO2) is released. The latter, of course, is the main greenhouse gas (GHG) that our civilization emits when we burn fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) for energy. This release of huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is the primary cause of climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming.
So we have a riddle. How can we get some of the energy our civilization needs and uses, without harming our planet and without changing our climate?
This potential use of hydrogen is one possibility being explored as a partial solution to our energy needs. There are of course problems, as you get into the weeds, as they say.
So where can we get the large amount of this hydrogen gas that we would need?
Currently, the main industrial process for obtaining hydrogen (called “blue hydrogen”) uses methane (natural gas or CH4). It “reforms” methane to produce hydrogen with carbon dioxide as a by-product. This is the problem. To obtain a clean source of energy (hydrogen), we would use a hydrocarbon (methane or CH4), add a lot of energy with water (H2O) to the industrial “reforming” process, then treat the carbon dioxide which is a per-product. See equation (2).
(2) CH4 + H2O –> CO2 + H2
Obviously, the fossil fuel industry likes this approach because we would presumably continue to use one of the fossil fuels they produce in quantity, methane or natural gas.
Billions of dollars in US Department of Energy grants are being invested in trying to make the process economical and manage the CO2 produced. How do you collect huge amounts of this gas mixture, separate the CO2 from the sought-after “blue hydrogen” and then what to do with this CO2 once you have it? Currently in the United States, this CO2 gas is re-injected underground in order to evacuate more oil.
Not good from a planetary perspective because it just produces more oil and more CO2 when burned.
Air Products, in Edmonton, Canada, announced plans in 2021 to invest $1.3 billion to build a complex to manufacture “blue hydrogen” and capture and store the CO2 produced. It will use a “reformer” process as described above.
But this company is doing stupid things and is also involved in a big project to produce “green hydrogen”.
The goal of this $5 billion project in Saudi Arabia is to produce “green hydrogen” from renewable energy. This project consists of using electricity from renewable sources, such as wind or solar energy, to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen; no carbon dioxide is produced. It would be good for the planet and the climate. The economics of these approaches is still being determined and whether all of this is the best use of taxpayer dollars. The overall reaction (3) would look like this. In purpose-built equipment, water (H2O) plus electricity (2e-) would produce hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). The latter is not a pollutant; it supports us.
(3) H2O + 2nd– -> H2 + O2
If this project, or one of these projects, succeeds in producing large quantities of hydrogen, then what do we do with it? It must be collected, purified, compressed, transported, distributed, … in complete safety, then used in special equipment. These challenges are significant and remain to be addressed.
This research and development effort has many different aspects that cannot be covered here. But let’s just say that the production of “green hydrogen” could contribute in part to meeting our energy needs without having to also manage carbon dioxide, as would be the case for “blue hydrogen”.
The energy disruption is underway. As we move away from fossil fuels it will be a messy process with lots of false starts and dead ends until we get a competitive and environmentally friendly solution that gives us some of the power. energy we need without producing CO2.
In the meantime, research and development projects are underway to use “blue hydrogen”. The photo (courtesy Alaska Air Group) of the aircraft is one of many that the Alaska Air Group is working with ZeroAvia to convert a 76-seat De Havilland Canada Dash-8 to hydrogen electric with a range predicted 300- 500 miles; ideal for short distance flights.
And the story of disruption continues.
A lead story on the front page of The New York Times on Tuesday, February 8, 2022 is titled “Electric Cars Set to Break Through as Sales Soar.” He talks about Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Tesla and the demand for their all-electric vehicles (EVs). The consequences for workers, companies and the environment are enormous: some models are sold out for 2 years.
According to the article, about 4% of new cars sold in the United States in 2021 were electric vehicles; that’s double the amount sold in 2020. Sales would have been higher, except that more EVs weren’t available due to supply chain issues.
In Europe, the shift is even more spectacular. In 2015, more than 50% of the cars sold there were diesel, but in December 2021, battery-powered cars were selling better than diesels.
See the two pie charts: one is titled “December 2021 UK Passenger Auto Registrations. It shows that 33.2% of new vehicles registered are PEVs (plug-in electric vehicles).
A comparable graph for Germany (not shown) shows that registrations reached 35.7% in December 2021; and Sweden reached 53.6% during the same period.
What is amazing is that Norway, for the same period in 2021, reached 90.0% VEA. See circular chart.
Change is coming. Wait.
The scientific career of Raymond N. Johnson, Ph.D., spanned 30 years in research and development as an organic/analytical chemist; he is currently the founder and director of the Institute of Climate Studies USA (www.ICSUSA.org). Climate Science is published the second Sunday of each month.