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Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. On Earth it is normally found bonded with other elements, such as water and organic compounds. These include hydrocarbons. Under normal conditions it is flammable, colourless, odourless and much lighter than air.

Hydrogen gas is not considered to be a source of energy, but an energy vector that can be used to store, transport and transform energy. Widespread use of hydrogen gas is envisaged in a context of very large-scale electricity generation from renewables. In such a situation, because of the inherent lag between production and consumption, it would be necessary to have some way of storing power surpluses. The use of hydrogen would enable seasonal energy storage and also transport to different points of consumption.

In such a context, hydrogen gas would be one of the most attractive alternatives because of its versatility and its potential for interaction with electricity and natural gas.

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Hydrogen Production

Because hydrogen does not exist in isolation in nature, it has to be produced. This can be achieved using:

  1. electrolysis of water, in which electricity is used to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. If the electricity used in the process is from renewable sources, the hydrogen produced is known as green hydrogen..
  2. el reforming of hydrocarbons, particularly natural gas.. Methane (and other hydrocarbons) are reformed by heating the gas and, by using a catalyst, producing a blend of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. In a second reaction, the CO is combined with steam to produce carbon dioxide and more hydrogen, ultimately producing a mixture of CO2 and H2. The overall process has an energy efficiency of approximately 65%. The product of this process is known as grey hydrogen. However, if it is followed by a process of CO2, capture and storage, it is called blue hydrogen.

Hydrogen gas is used in large quantities in the chemical and petrochemical industry, where it is generally obtained through steam reforming of natural gas.


General uses of Hydrogen

Once produced, the hydrogen gas can be used in different ways:

  • To produce electricity via a fuel cell (or turbines or motors). If it has been produced using electrolysis with renewably-sourced electricity, the process entails no form of emissions, pollutants, or greenhouse gases.
  • As a transport fuel, in fuel-cell driven electric vehicles or by using the hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels.
  • To be injected in the natural gas network and consumed in a mixture or recovered in upgrading processes.
  • To produce biomethane in power-to-gas processes.
  • To power boilers or thermal engines.

Use in transport

Fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles that store energy in the form of hydrogen gas, rather than in an electrochemical battery. The overall process, from the generation of renewable electricity through to its use to drive the vehicle, has an efficiency level of around 20% — a long way from the 70% figure for battery electric vehicles.

There are currently very few models of fuel cell cars on the market, and they cost in excess of €60,000. The bus market is stronger, with a significant number of European cities now adding fuel-cell vehicles to their urban and inter-city fleets. Unlike battery electric vehicles, the range and refuelling times of this type of vehicle are comparable to those of conventional vehicles.

Hydrogen is also a possible solution for rail transport, on lines where electrification is not viable, and in maritime transport.

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Hydrogen and the energy transition

In order to make the use of green hydrogen more viable, projects are developed from an overall perspective (the so-called 'hydrogen ecosystem'), making use of the economies of scale that can be offered in large-scale consumption, such as in the chemical and petrochemical industries. The use of hydrogen therefore impacts seven significant functions in the energy transition:

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  1. Introduction of renewable energy. All the renewable energy produced can be consumed or stored, thus incentivising the installation of greater generating capacity.
  2. Energy distribution between industries and regions.
  3. Energy storage as a solution to seasonal imbalances in renewable power generation.
  4. Decarbonisation of transport.
  5. Decarbonisation of heat and power generation in buildings.
  6. Decarbonisation of heat generation in industry.
  7. Renewable raw material for industry (chemical, petrochemical, etc.).

Source: Hydrogen Roadmap Europe, FCH JU

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