Firms push hydrogen as top green energy source

January 18, 2017 by Fabien Zamora
Members of the new Hydrogen Council at the Davos World Economic Forum on January 17, 2017. Major industrial groups have decided to join forces to promote hydrogen as a source of energy, with the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Over a dozen leading European and Asian firms have teamed up to promote the use of hydrogen as a clean fuel and cut the production of harmful gasses that lead to global warming.

Convened on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, the first Hydrogen Council brought together 13 firms, among them top carmakers BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota as well as leading industrial gas companies Air Liquide and Linde.

Others at the gathering late Tuesday included energy firms Alstom, Engie, Shell and Total as well as mining company AngloAmerican.

Scientists have long pursued the use of electric fuel cells for cars that use —the lightest element with the atomic number 1—as the byproduct of its combustion is water and not gases that cause climate change.

Air Liquide's chief executive Benoit Potier described the council as "key leaders of the energy transport and industry sector joining forces to express a common vision of the key role hydrogen will play in the future to bring a solution to the energy transition."

In particular, the firms will share data and research to make hydrogen technologies profitable, as well working on international standards to help speed their adoption.

They will also try to convince governments to support the technology, another indispensable condition for its success.

"At the early stage, unless we have strong government support, this transformation" into a decarbonised society "is impossible".

Energy storage solution

Those participating in the Hydrogen Council insist the applications for hydrogen go beyond fuel cells for cars.

One of the major challenges for such as solar and wind is storing the energy produced if it can't be used immediately.

Besides building expensive mega-batteries, current options include pumping water up to reservoirs to produce hydro power when energy is needed.

Fuel cell technology, used in reverse, could help resolve this problem.

"If you take this solar electricity you don't know what to do with, you electrolyse water, this makes hydrogen, which is a gas you can put in the natural gas network," Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanne told to AFP.

This not only makes use of the surplus electricity, but it also makes investment in solar and wind projects more profitable.

"We've mastered the technology, but the challenge now is to expand its use onto a mass scale," said Pouyanne.

'We can do it'

Bringing down costs will play an important role.

"If we manage to reduce costs all along the production chain, then hydrogen will become a solution for moving where it is needed," said Engie's chief Didier Holleaux.

One area that still needs work is improving the efficiency of electrolysers, which split water into hydrogen and oxygen, as well as reducing the cost of them through mass production.

Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss pilot who last year flew around the world in an aircraft powered only by the sun, was enthusiastic about the technology.

"Twenty years ago we were talking about hydrogen a little bit like teenagers are talking about sex, everybody speaks of it but nobody does it," said Piccard.

"Today we can do it."

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Eikka
5 / 5 (5) Jan 18, 2017
"Twenty years ago we were talking about hydrogen a little bit like teenagers are talking about sex, everybody speaks of it but nobody does it," said Piccard.

"Today we can do it."


But it's still a bit like sex - you can do it in your own bedroom, but trying it out in public has a laundry list of practical problems.

To start with, you can't -just- push hydrogen into the natural gas grid. The current system tolerates up to 30% of it in the mix, weight being on the word "tolerates"; it increases the flammability and leakage rate because hydrogen is the smallest molecule that diffuses even through metals. In that sense it's like adding nitro to gasoline - the engine tolerates it up to a point, after which things start blowing up.

The second problem is stockpiling it. Liquefying plain natural gas is relatively easy - liquefying hydrogen takes a lot more, and the energy density is a lot less.
humy
2 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2017
The whole idea of the hydrogen economy is badly flawed and hasn't been thought through and would be very expensive and counterproductive.
Worse, it could significant distract investors from what they should be doing which is invest in wind, solar, etc.
mgalaz
5 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2017
Agree completely with Eikka's comment. This fixation on hydrogen as a fuel source is unnecessary if we move towards the electrification of mobility. With greater battery efficiency and faster charging times, we only need to rely on renewable energy sources and an electrical grid that runs on them. Completely unnecessary and as mentioned, far more dangerous to have Hydrogen fuel cars. Electric is the future, no use trying to keep fossil fuels and natural gas in the mix.
PPihkala
5 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2017
"If we manage to reduce costs all along the production chain, then hydrogen will become a solution for moving energy where it is needed," said Engie's chief Didier Holleaux.

One area that still needs work is improving the efficiency of electrolysers, which split water into hydrogen and oxygen, as well as reducing the cost of them through mass production.

Hydrogen can be an energy carrier (a bad one, as Eikka states), but it is not source. Also the end-to-end efficiency is really bad compared to battery storage. And lastly the materials needed in electrolysers and fuel cells are expensive. Just give the actual efficiency figures and device prices and people will see that they can't compete with EVs.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2017
it could significant distract investors from what they should be doing which is invest in wind, solar, etc.

It#s a comlimentary technology. Already we have days where teh entire electricity needs are met by renewables and the rest has to be shed (or sold off at negative prices). A storage solution could be profitable because it makes money both ways: Buying excess at negative prices and selling at times of high demand. If that revenue balances the infrastructure cost it's a worthwhile investment.

Renweable generation alone isn't the answer. Large grids and/or storage will have to play a part. Hydrogen is ideal for storage because you can easily scale it by adding more tanks (unlike batteries where you have to scale all the functional pieces, too)

Bad efficiency is immaterial if the input cost (excess energy) is free. Efficiency is only of concern when you have fuel costs.
humy
not rated yet Jan 18, 2017

Renweable generation alone isn't the answer. Large grids and/or storage will have to play a part.

which doesn't require hydrogen.

Hydrogen is ideal for storage because you can easily scale it by adding more tanks (unlike batteries where you have to scale all the functional pieces, too)

Don't understand that above statement; why cannot batteries be 'easily' scaled up simply by adding more batteries? What has them having "functional pieces" to them got to do with it? Whatever devices you use to make and store and use hydrogen, they must also be made of "functional pieces" , right?

Bad efficiency is immaterial if the input cost (excess energy) is free. Efficiency is only of concern when you have fuel costs.

That is not true. If you use use of energy from renewables very inefficiently, that would mean you must make more solar panels and wind turbines etc to produce more energy (because more is wasted) thus adding to your costs.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2017
which doesn't require hydrogen.

It doesn't require hydrogen. But hydrogen is probably the most flexible technology for storage (because it can be easily used for electricity, mobility and heat)

Don't understand that above statement; why cannot batteries be 'easily' scaled up simply by adding more batteries?

Batteries are anode, cathode and electrolyte. If you want to double the capacity you need to install twice the anode, twice the cathode and twice the electrolyte.
Hydrogen solution is fuel cell and tank. To double the capacity you just need to install double the tank. Even if the fuel cell is very costly compared to a battery this will mean that beyond a certain size tanks are better than batteries. Tank cost scales with volume - battery cost scales with surface area.

(Some battery designs leverage this principle, too: flow batteries. But they use expensive electrolyte. Hydrogen is cheap.)
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 18, 2017
That is not true. If you use use of energy from renewables very inefficiently, that would mean you must make more solar panels and wind turbines

True, but natural variability will mean that if we install enough to cover for year-round supply there will be times with massive overproduction. Efficiency alone cannot alleviate this. (Though efficient use is good, that is why all countries moving towards renewables are also investing into stuff like subsidies for better home insulation).

In the end it will be a matter of how much hydrogen storage costs.
If it is way cheaper than battery storage then more solar panels/windparks could be more economical than less solar/winparks and battery storage. As noted: The infrastructure already exists (tanks for strategic oil reserves and whatnot). With minimal upgrades these could be revamped for hydrogen storage.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2017
Buying excess at negative prices and selling at times of high demand. If that revenue balances the infrastructure cost it's a worthwhile investment.


But the negative prices represent a fault condition on the market that should be avoided. They mean the energy producer has to pay the energy consumer - the hydrogen generator in this case - and that's not sustainable except by government decree. Of course it may be a worthwhile investment to the people involved, but it's not worthwhile to the people who actually have to pay.

If free competition is allowed, the price of the excess energy won't be zero or negative. The reason now is because there's no takers and it's already paid.

Bad efficiency is immaterial if the input cost (excess energy) is free.


But it isn't free - it's still very expensive. It's just sold for nothing because of the artifical market failure caused by subsidies. Just because the hydrogen guy doesn't pay doesn't mean nobody will.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2017
But hydrogen is probably the most flexible technology for storage (because it can be easily used for electricity, mobility and heat)


Synthetic/artifical methane is even more so. It goes into the gas grid as is without limitations, it goes into fuel cells just the same, into conventional engines, into peoples furnaces and water heaters... we're already using it and the question is just making more of it.

There's only two problems:
1) it doesn't require massive social or infrastructure changes because it fits into the existing system, so it's "too easy". You can't drive a political or profit agenda with that.

2) it doesn't need to be continuously subsidized, nor does it need massive research grants to advance technologies that don't exist, so there's no loose taxpayer money to go around

Commercial pilot plants in the MW scale are already up. Biogas stations are already operating etc. etc.
skystare
not rated yet Jan 18, 2017
Hydrogen motor fuel is a favorite of oil companies as they can look "green" without any danger of practical results.
On the subject of leaks, propane is far, far easier to store and control than hydrogen, yet I don't know of a single enclosed parkade that hasn't banned propane vehicles.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2017
With minimal upgrades these could be revamped for hydrogen storage.


Cryogenic liquid hydrogen storage is not "minimal upgrade" to a system originally designed to house liquid hydrocarbons. It's a complete overhaul.

On the subject of leaks, propane is far, far easier to store and control than hydrogen, yet I don't know of a single enclosed parkade that hasn't banned propane vehicles.


Maybe that's because in a fire, they all go pop-pop-pop as the pressurized tanks give in to the heat and disperse the fuel, turning the place into a chain reaction inferno.

That's why neither hydrogen nor methane will ever be the optimal fuel for vehicles. Fortunately, you can catalyze methane into longer hydrocarbons that are liquid at room temperature - something which is difficult to do to plain hydrogen because there's no carbon in the molecule.

Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2017
True, but natural variability will mean that if we install enough to cover for year-round supply there will be times with massive overproduction. Efficiency alone cannot alleviate this.


Poor efficiency at the storage and distribution stage really undermines the whole system.

That's because wasting some of the overproduction means you're no longer covering the demand on average and have to build more overproduction, which is again largely wasted. This causes a dramatic increase in the cost of generation beyond the fraction which the system can absorb directly.

So the question becomes: if that's the case why build it at all? Why pay the price when there are alternatives that don't behave like that?
humy
not rated yet Jan 18, 2017
That is not true. If you use use of energy from renewables very inefficiently, that would mean you must make more solar panels and wind turbines

True, but natural variability will mean that if we install enough to cover for year-round supply there will be times with massive overproduction. .

so make a supper grid; with perhaps just a bit of off-the-grid energy storage using batteries only if that is needed to supplement that; problem solved. No need for impractical difficult-to-store and generally inefficient to produce hydrogen. This hydrogen-economy idea will go nowhere and would just get in the way of what needs to happen.
rrrander
not rated yet Jan 19, 2017
Davos. Where the 0.01% gather in their private jets to lecture us on carbon footprints, where they discuss world food issues while snack on caviar parfait. Too bad ISIS doesn't pick them as a target.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
so make a supper grid; with perhaps just a bit of off-the-grid energy storage

It is going to be a mix of both. No one is advocating an 'only hydrogen' storage solution. A supergrid is a good idea in any scenario.

No need for impractical difficult-to-store and generally inefficient to produce hydrogen.

It's not that difficult. Air Liquide and Linde handle these gases routinely in large quantities.
And if it's cheaper on a large scale then that's the way to go. For vehicles hydrogen have the advantage of being refillable within minutes. While this may not be much of an issue for cars which can charge over night it's certainly a huge boost to getting long distance trucking, planes and ships off fossil fuels (there's currently no viable solution to do this with batteries).

I'm seeing the hydrogen economy as part of an entire set of technologies - not as a one-and-only solution.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
A supergrid is a good idea in any scenario


Except in the real world where political tensions between countries exist. See for example how Russia is extorting the EU by the gas pipelines - that is a sort of supergrid because it involves piping gas down from Siberia all the way to Spain.

A long distance transmission line is just a concentrated point of failure. Relying your infrastructure on that without redundancy in stored energy is asking for trouble

For vehicles hydrogen have the advantage of being refillable within minutes


And the disadvantage of short retaining times, because there's no container that can hold the pressure of boiling liquid hydrogen. Compressed gaseous hydrogen on the other hand very limited in energy density, and slowed down by the heat of compression. It's a massive safety hazard and an inconvenience at best.

Metal hydrides on the other hand are little better than batteries, and involve infeasible quantities of expensive materials.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2017
I'm seeing the hydrogen economy as part of an entire set of technologies - not as a one-and-only solution.


It's really a competition between alternatives, where multiple different technologies can perform the same function, and hydrogen happens to be among the most expensive and least practically feasible.

Other power-to-gas and power-to-liquid techniques are leapfrogging over the whole hydrogen economy.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
Except in the real world where political tensions between countries exist.

Which is only an issue for small countries - A US-wide supergrid would be fine. I'm not sure when the US will declare war on Canada, tho.
Even during the cold war there were grid infrastructures for exchanging electricity between east and westeuropean states. A european grid has been a reality for quite some decades.

...Russia is extorting...

The whole point is to have the production decentralized and shifting around as supply (wind, sunshine, biogas, wave, ... ) becomes available and that can also draw from decentralized storage. I.e. EXACTLY the type of setup that would avoid being reliant on one producer and one pipeline.

And the disadvantage of short retaining times, because there's no container that can hold the pressure of boiling liquid hydrogen.

Not an issue for steady consumers (ships, trucks, planes).
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
The safety issue with hydrogen is that it combusts really violently even in relatively small amounts.

Example:

https://h2tools.o...-chamber
An explosion occurred in a Microbiological Anaerobic Chamber of approximately 2 m3 capacity that contained an explosive mixture of hydrogen and air. A fire followed the explosion, but was rapidly extinguished by staff using fire extinguishers prior to the arrival of fire service personnel. The pressure wave from the explosion blew windows out of the laboratory, with glass hitting a passerby on a path outside and glass shards landing up to 30 m away.


2 cubic meters is about the size of a large fridge. A suitable quantity of hydrogen mixed with air in a small broom closet is apt to destroy the whole house around it because it instantly goes bang upon ignition. Other gasses such as propane tend to burn more leisurely.

It does this https://www.youtu...Bg087hW0
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 19, 2017
It's a massive safety hazard and an inconvenience at best.

I'm not seeing hydrogen explosions in the news very often. Do you?
As for convenience: Handling hydrogen is no more or less convenient than handling any other gas.
There's also alternatives to storing hydrogen in a pressure container: Metal hydrides, which are very easy and safe to handle - at the drawback of requiring activation to release the stored hydrogen. Or you can go for liquid organic carriers (LOHC) - which make refueling a bit more complex as you need to remove the spent 'substrate'.

hydrogen happens to be among the most expensive and least practically feasible.

Pretty sure at large scales the volume (hydrogen) vs. surface (batteries) scaling will win out. Exponents are powerful stuff when it comes to costs.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 19, 2017
The safety issue with hydrogen is that it combusts really violently even in relatively small amounts.
It does this https://www.youtu...Bg087hW0

Yay...from 2006. Meanwhile the latest natural gas/oil/gasoline explosion was,like what? Yesterday?
(And you get all kinds of pollutants if you have an oil truck leak, a tanker explosion or an oil rig going up in smoke. If you have a hydrogen tank explode you get...what? Water? Scary stuff.)
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
EXACTLY the type of setup that would avoid being reliant on one producer and one pipeline.


The European gas grid isn't reliant on one producer and one pipeline. It's just that Russia happpens to supply such a great quantity of gas into it, that they have great political levearage.

The supergrid becomes vulnerable because with renewable energy sources you can't choose when to produce - you can't choose to increase supply where needed because it's largely out of anyone's control - hence why the grid must be up at all times to level out the differences over long distances, and if a major link gets compromized then the -entire- system breaks down. It goes into cascade failure.

So there has to be local redundancy anyways - enough to run the full demand - but once you have that you don't really need the supergrid anymore.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
I'm not seeing hydrogen explosions in the news very often. Do you?


They're not being reported beyond local news - hydrogen is mostly used in industrial or laboratory settings and small accidents don't make international news; that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Here's a site with hundreds of case examples:
https://h2tools.org/lessons/

As for convenience: Handling hydrogen is no more or less convenient than handling any other gas.


Except it is. Hydrogen embrittlement, exremely low temperatures, high volatility, high dispersion, low ignition energy, vast explosive concentration window... everything about hydrogen requires greater care and expense.

Metal hydrides, which are very easy and safe to handle - at the drawback of requiring activation to release the stored hydrogen.


The metal hydrides are safe when contained. If you break the container, they self-ignite in air - and they're very expensive to manufacture, and they're very heavy.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
Here's a fellow who tries to dismantle a metal hydride hydrogen storage capsule, and finds out the material is spontanously combusting when exposed to air:

https://www.youtu...A#t=2821

Note that the tank is empty of hydrogen. If it actually had hydrogen in it, the temperature rise would cause it to release instantly and that would make a pretty bang.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
Yay...from 2006.


Here's one from last year

http://www.toledo...ash.html

Crews work to neutralize remaining hydrogen in a tanker truck that crashed Thursday and burned for about 18 hours, shutting down several miles of the Ohio Turnpike.

Both directions of the turnpike remained closed as authorities worked to pump helium into the tanker, which was carrying 3,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen, to prevent it from exploding again.


Why helium? Because there's liquid hydrogen remaining in the tank - it stays liquid by slowly boiling away. Helium remains a gas at the very low temperatures and displaces any air entering the broken tank by making sure there's positive flow of gas outwards. Otherwise, if air enters the tank and touches the cold hydrogen, the oxygen liquefies and forms a very high explosive mixture.

TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2017
Renewables are fussy and messy. None serves without augmentation or backup. None can serve in every environment. What you are left with is a patchwork of intermittent production, storage, and redistribution nightmares.

What the world needs is a brand new power source and a paradigm shift in the concept of energy production. Something as versatile and dependable as nuclear but as clean as PV.

Hey how about this?
http://brilliantlightpower.com

-hydrogen-based, enormous cheap power. Applicable in everything and everywhere. Simple, safe, and infinitely scalable.

And dark matter is purportedly harmless although I cant find an MSDS on it. Anyone?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 19, 2017
The European gas grid isn't reliant on one producer and one pipeline.

Russia is the number 1 supplier of oil and gas to the EU (roughly 30% in each sector). It's a good idea to change that.
The supergrid becomes vulnerable because with renewable energy sources you can't choose when to produce

That's why you need storage - which is what we're discussing, here. If you know your year-round production and year-round usage (which are numbers you can estimate to a fair degree) then a production/storage mix can be planned.

if a major link gets compromized then the -entire- system breaks down.

Funnily it doesn't, because the grid in Europe is designed to be with (mostly) redundant ways of transmitting power. Unlike in the uS large scale cascading power-outs aren't part and parcel of such a grid. The supergrid envisioned after revamping will be even more secure against failure of individual nodes.

antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 19, 2017
The last 'big' outage in Europe was 2006, which lasted - in the worst affected regions - all of 2 hours. In most regions the break was in the range of minutes to seconds. 10 million households were affected accross Europe. While vexing this isn't exactly a catastrophe.

Local redundancy for a couple of minutes is perfectly fine. Storage should be distributed. Full local redundancy of energy production - while optimal - isn't needed (and would be economically wasteful). When power production becomes ubiquitous (i.e. when energy production will be part of every roof, road surface and any other available space as a normal feature) then we won't need a grid anymore. But that is still some ways in the future.
BrettC
not rated yet Jan 20, 2017
You have to look at the entirety of the technology. Hydrogen's energy density is fixed and it's safe containment is difficult which makes scaling problematic. Battery technology, although not yet commercially equal in energy density, will surpass in soon and is already much easier to scale and contain safely.

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