Miracle Fuel Hydrogen Will Probably Not Save Us From Climate Change

Published on: 31 May 2022 12:00 PM
by KnowESG

Since the world started crying for help, many initiatives have been taken in order to limit the impact of climate change. One of the solutions was to cut down on toxic sources of energy and find greener energy to produce in order to continue vital activities that require powering ships, planes, and factories. The winner was then appointed: hydrogen. However, it seems like it may not save the world, at least not without making climate change even worse if used for the next decades. 

Scientists have warned against the dangers of leaking hydrogen into the atmosphere; it might not be very different from carbon. Investigations are currently going on into how transferring hydrogen via pipelines meant to contain natural gas or burning it in individual homes, might generate an intolerable degree of emissions. Those structures were originally made for larger molecules like methane, which is why hydrogen can leak easily.

  • Once released, hydrogen is absorbed by the soil and in the air and could react with another substance that will make methane stay longer in the atmosphere. It is important to note that methane can affect global warming more than 80 times more than carbon dioxide.

  • When hydrogen reacts with the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere closest to the ground, it makes ozone and water vapor, which traps even more thermal energy.

"The potency is a lot stronger than people realize," said Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit group. "We’re putting this on everyone’s radar now not to say ‘no’ to hydrogen but to think about how we deploy it."

Instead of trapping heat as CO2 does, hydrogen creates a number of reactions when freed in the air, which creates heat and acts as an indirect greenhouse gas. Despite the fact that it degrades faster than CO2, the effect of hydrogen in the short-term could be enormous. A recent study by the UK government found that, if we don't take into account how long each element lasts, hydrogen has 33 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over 20 years.

The problems related to hydrogen were not clearly mentioned or looked into in the past because the use of this resource was limited to oil refineries, chemical, and fertilizer facilities. At the moment, however, governments and businesses are investing in hydrogen, with the hope of offsetting the carbon impact they have been responsible for years. It is becoming a necessity to communicate and study more about the effects of hydrogen. In the last two years, Joe Biden has invested $8 billion in at least four hydrogen hubs where the fuel will be produced and used, as well as a dozen other pilot projects. But the question is: how to overcome this issue after all this money and effort involved? Are we supposed to put an end to the only savior we have had for climate change so far?

Ocko claims nothing has to change except the infrastructure for producing and transferring hydrogen. If the leakage is limited, then the problem is avoided. 

"There is great potential using hydrogen to save a lot of emissions of carbon dioxide, but it’s really important to keep the hydrogen leakage rates down," said Nicola Warwick, lead author of the UK study and a National Centre for Atmospheric Science research scientist at the University of Cambridge.

All industries are aware of the challenges related to hydrogen, but the effect of whether the effects of hydrogen leakage are worse than those engendered by other fuels is debatable. According to Dave Edwards, director at Air Liquide and its chief hydrogen advocate in the US, even with the imperfect infrastructure to make and transfer hydrogen, it is still better than the use of diesel and gasoline for power generation.

"It doesn’t mean it’s not still important, it doesn’t mean we don’t need to understand more about it, but our first impression is that it’s much, much smaller," said Edwards. Hydrogen leaks "are manageable problems to address," according to him.

There was no wrong belief about hydrogen, it is even more useful than wind or solar energy because it can be stored in large quantities. 

Trying to warn those who would listen about the short-term effects of hydrogen, Steven Hamburg, EDF's chief scientist, and his colleague Ocko has met with some 200 people related to the field who could help them make their claims heard. 

There are still major improvements to be made with hydrogen extraction. In a blind attempt to stop emitting carbon dioxide, some companies have forgotten that, along with leaks, using fossil fuels to extract hydrogen could also worsen climate change. However, the same output could be obtained by separating hydrogen from water using renewable power with no side emissions but oxygen.

Gas utilities are exploring hydrogen blending processes. California Utility PG&E Corp. is developing some experience in that area in a power plant south of Sacramento to try different blends of hydrogen and natural gas and explore further the issues related to leaks with the "Hydrogen to Infinity" project.

Source : Financial Post