Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Hydrogen Economy

The energy sectors in both the United States and Europe are on the cusp of immense change. New technologies are being developed and opportunities for entrepreneurial ideas and innovative approaches are ripening at a time when capital-intensive, aging energy infrastructure is in need of improvement.

The world currently exists in a carbon economy. 80% of the primary energy which drives the world is derived from hydrocarbon fossil fuels; oil 35%, coal 24% and natural gas 21% and 11% is contributed by renewables, almost all renewable biomass. In the last two centuries the volume of carbon consumption has increased exponentially with the world’s industrialisation.

The carbon economy has given great economic benefits to mankind but it is subject to two limitations. Although new reserves of hydrocarbons and new technologies to exploit them are being discovered all the time, these resources are not limitless. Secondly, fossil fuels emit greenhouse gasses and other pollutants when they are burned and these emissions have reached dangerous proportions. Alternatives to the carbon economy are feasible although wide scale use is some years in the future. A hydrogen economy is one such option, in which the sustainable energy supply system of the future features electricity and hydrogen as the dominant energy carriers. Hydrogen will be produced from a diverse base of primary energy feedstocks, or from water using renewable electricity in the process. The use of hydrogen energy would reduce dependence on petroleum and the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions caused by carbons.

The development of the hydrogen economy will advance on two fronts. The development of another technology, the fuel cell, is essential to the exploitation of hydrogen; the two are interlinked. It is important to understand that hydrogen is not a primary energy source like coal and gas; it is an energy carrier, like electricity. Hydrogen can be converted to energy via traditional combustion methods and through electrochemical processes in fuel cells. Initially it will be produced using existing energy systems based on different conventional primary energy sources and carriers. In the longer term renewable energy sources could become the most important source for the production of hydrogen.

Fuel cells utilise the chemical energy of hydrogen to produce electricity and thermal energy. A fuel cell is a quiet, clean source of energy. Water is the only by-product it emits if it uses hydrogen directly. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in that they are composed of positive and negative electrodes with an electrolyte or membrane. The difference between fuel cells and batteries is that energy is not recharged and stored in fuel cells as it is in batteries. Fuel cells receive their energy from the hydrogen or similar fuel that is supplied to them. No charge is thereby necessary.

Fuel cells are already used in a wide variety of products, ranging from very small fuel cells in portable devices such as mobile phones and laptops, mobile applications like cars, delivery vehicles, buses and ships, to heat and power generators in stationary applications in the domestic and industrial sector. Fuel cells are customarily classified into the three categories; stationary, portable and mobile or transport. Within these three overall groupings there are sub-categories.

Although there are many positive factors in the concept of a hydrogen economy, there are arguments against it. The potential benefits include high efficiencies, decentralised power generation, security of supply, reduced emissions, reliable and silent operation, energy savings, multiple uses and opportunities for hybrids. On the downside there are huge technological challenges and massive investment is needed to create capacity and infrastructure for the production and delivery of hydrogen. The environmental benefits are only as good as the sources and processes of production, and finally there are competitive technologies.

New technologies include large scale electrification in conjunction with plug-in hybrid vehicles and Li-ion batteries in transport. In the stationary applications market, distributed electricity generation or cogeneration present an alternative to hydrogen. Other significant competitors are a new level of power generation technologies, such as large, increased efficiency coal and gas-fired power plants, possibly using underground coal gasification (UCG) with CO2 capture and storage (CCS), renewable electricity supply technologies which are already widespread in the market (wind and solar PV) or now being commercialised (ocean and tidal energy), and new nuclear power technologies. At the same time, new technologies such as micro-turbines and Stirling engines are being introduced in combined heat and power applications. All of these technologies are in the pipeline and will not simply be overridden by hydrogen.

Virtually all of the OECD countries treat research into hydrogen and fuel cells as an important and in most cases an increasingly important, element of their overall public policy and programme planning activities. An important feature of hydrogen and fuel cell research and development is the exceptionally strong involvement and commitment of industry as well as governments. The US federal government proposes spending $2.7 billion over the next five years on hydrogen and fuel cell research and development, and advanced automotive technologies. The Japanese government plans to spend over $380 million a year on fuel cell research, development and commercialisation. The FP- Framework Programme - is the EU’s main instrument for research funding in Europe and was first adopted in 1984, each lasting for a five year period. FP 7 has a total budget of over €50 billion and some €275 million is earmarked for hydrogen and fuel cells, in addition to national expenditures.

It cannot be taken as a forgone conclusion that an exclusive hydrogen economy will emerge.

Hydrogen is coming but it may consist of a hybrid of hydrogen applications side by side with conventional fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable energy. The final evolution is so far in the future and the waters are so uncharted that many variants are possible. Iceland, although small, has a high proportion of renewable energy, mainly geothermal and is interesting because the government has determined that the country should be the first with a hydrogen economy.



Blogger HUGO said...

Congretulation, enjoyed it
"Hydrogen can be converted to energy via traditional combustion methods....."
Synergy with our "Tour Engine" approch.
Ben Tour

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Blogger daniel said...

Renewable Energy sources are a fantastic change, and hopefully the next implemented step in our energy consumption. I have been real fascinated with Geothermal Energy as of late, it is a viable source as well. I recommend this report on renewable energy, especially Geothermal.


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