Hydrogen: why do we need it?

Tuesday 07 April 2020

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and will play a key role in powering our lives for future generations. However, it doesn’t exist freely in nature, it needs to be produced. So why do we need hydrogen? Dr. Palma Gonzalez Garcia, Innovation & Technical Insight Manager at CPH2 explains.


Turn on the TV, the radio or just go online these days and all that you will hear or see is about the Coronavirus and with good reason of course. But before the world went into lockdown, all we heard about was Climate Change, the “Greta Generation”, Extinction Rebellion and how we must all produce fewer emissions to cut our carbon production.


Also, air pollution is a global concern and a serious worry to longer-term public health, second only to the immediate nature of Covid-19. In industrialised and developing countries, the emissions from vehicles are the biggest contributor to the poor air quality in cities and towns, look how much the air quality has improved since transport, industry, and flying have been reduced by the current pandemic. Looking back to the end of 2018, China had already overtaken the USA to become the world’s largest producer of CO2 emissions with energy production the biggest industry polluter of them all. Is it any wonder that we are striving to find alternative green energy for our future and if fossil fuels are the biggest polluter surely, it’s a good thing that they are in finite supply?


What can we use hydrogen for?

We are seeing more use of hydrogen to decarbonise our need for heat, electricity, and transport. But think about the bigger picture, what else needs fuel? Forklift trucks, airport ground support equipment, agricultural machinery, and construction equipment, all of which currently use carbon-emitting diesel, can be converted to use hydrogen. Mobile generators can be powered by hydrogen, reducing not only the harmful emissions but also noise emissions. What about heating and powering your home? Boiler manufacturers Worcester Bosch, Baxi, and Vaillant have already launched hydrogen-ready boilers and utility infrastructure provider Cadent is working on a pilot to inject hydrogen into the gas network to fuel our homes, whilst Northern Gas Networks is urging cooker manufacturers to make products hydrogen-ready as well.


How do you produce hydrogen?

Nowadays, the most common method of generating hydrogen is by Steam Methane Reformation (SMR), but this isn’t environmentally friendly as carbon oxides are the by-product of this process (approx. 9 kg CO2/kg H2 production). The SMR process subjects steam at a very high temperature and high pressure with methane gas, passing it through a metal membrane such as nickel to produce the hydrogen. However, to obtain the purest form of hydrogen (99.999% for use in fuel cell vehicles) requires precious metals such as palladium or platinum, which are costly, rare and not very sustainable.


The cleanest way to produce hydrogen (and pure oxygen) is by water electrolysis using renewable energy, which will make the process completely green. And this is where Clean Power Hydrogen (CPH2) is a technology leader. The CPH2 Membrane-Free Electrolyser™ does not use any exotic metals, does not give off harmful emissions and is built using widely available and recyclable components to improve the sustainability and simplicity of its build, in turn reducing capital and maintenance costs.


Hydrogen means zero-emissions. 

Hydrogen has great importance when it comes to the reduction of harmful emissions and decarbonisation of the energy systems that we currently use in the UK and throughout the world. So, how else can it be used? Island and remote communities will benefit greatly from local hydrogen production and usage to not only heat their homes but power their vehicles (see Charles Monroe’s blog from last year about the Portuguese island of Porto Santo). Eco-friendly supermarkets, factories, offices, data centres, and farms will all be powered efficiently by hydrogen. But it’s not just a fuel. Hydrogen can also be used as an industrial feedstock to many other chemical processes, such as ammonia or fertiliser production or even as a growth enhancer (when combined with oxygen) in hydroponics or aeroponics processes.

So, as we find ourselves subject to social distancing, supermarket queuing, taking daily exercise and not seeing our loved ones, take a moment to stop and think about how much power the hospitals need to help those suffering from the virus and in future how can hydrogen and oxygen play a part in this.

The CPH2 team would like to say a heartfelt thanks to all NHS staff and the other key workers who are out there keeping the country running, we thank you, you are amazing.