Could the UK be a world leader in a Hydrogen Economy?

The versatility of hydrogen offers big opportunities to help overcome some of the challenges the UK faces when transitioning to a low carbon economy.

As hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it has been identified as a promising source of "clean" fuel on Earth. This idea of a “hydrogen economy,” in which fuels that release greenhouse gases are replaced with the pollution-free fuel, hydrogen, has existed for many years.

"Hydrogen is an energy carrier with no carbon in it, so when you burn it, you only produce water," said Richard Chahine, the director of the Hydrogen Research Institute at University of Québec at Trois-Rivières in Canada.

Therefore, in theory, hydrogen is a perfect solution to our clean energy needs. It does not produce greenhouse gases when burned, it can be stored in large quantities for long periods, its 40 per cent more efficient than diesel and it can be used as a fuel in virtually every sector of our economy.

But according to a recent 2018 report from the Policy Exchange's energy team, “the potential of hydrogen has yet to be realised.”

Foreseeable problems…

The report states that if natural gas used in industry was completely replaced with hydrogen, industrial emissions could be cut by 71 per cent, but more research and investment in infrastructure is needed to reduce the cost of producing hydrogen so that it is a cost-effective solution for businesses.

One major problem with hydrogen is that it’s much more expensive than gas. Essentially, hydrogen is only a source of energy if it can be taken in its pure form, which means to get free hydrogen on Earth – we have to make it, which as a result is very costly.

Joshua Burke, senior energy and environment research fellow at Policy Exchange, said: “Firstly, we need to focus on getting cost-effective, scalable and sustainable production methods to reach mass market. Targeting investment towards reducing the high cost of producing large volumes of low carbon hydrogen is crucial. Secondly, we must decide the most appropriate applications of hydrogen within our economy, given potential uses are likely to be highly interconnected and this will have implications for the energy system.”

So what does this mean…

Essentially, we have a bit of a way to go before we can rely on a “hydrogen economy” but it’s promising to see there is increasing support in this area. Ben Houchen, Mayor of the Tees Valley, “The UK is well placed to be a world leader. We have strong clusters of relevant industry and production. We have a significant domestic demand and the potential to meet it. We should grasp the opportunities that the hydrogen economy represents.”

In other hydrogen news…

On 17th September, the world’s first commuter train service using a prototype hydrogen-powered train began in northern Germany.

Enak Ferlemann, Germany’s Government Commissioner for Rail Transport said: “These trains can be operated cleanly and in an environmentally friendly way, especially on secondary lines where overhead lines are uneconomical or not available yet. We therefore support and fund this technology, in order to expand it.”

Dr Bernd Althusmann, Lower Saxony’s minister of Economy and Transport added: “In successfully proving the operability of the hydrogen fuel cell technology in daily service, we will set the course for rail transport to be largely operated climate-friendly and emission-free in the future.”