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Futuristic Fuels: What Is Green Hydrogen & Its Role In a Clean Economy?

Your guide to understanding what green hydrogen is, how it's produced, why it's actually "green" (especially compared to other colors on the hydrogen spectrum), current use cases—and why many believe it might be the most important renewable energy source of the future.
Hydrogen car displayed in Tokyo

There may always be a need to have some kind of liquid, transportable fuel. No matter how hard we try, we may never make a jet engine that is powered by a battery—those things can be pretty heavy. How then are we able to move to a fully carbon-free economy? Looking to the past might just be a key to the future: Hydrogen power.

True, hydrogen was never used to fuel vehicles back in the day, but we were experimenting with things like airships which used the near-weightless element to bring us high into the air. Nowadays, we’re working on keeping it on the ground to make hydrogen-fueled cars to name one use, but the possibilities are just as high as the first zeppelins and dirigibles.

To help answer some questions about this potentially groundbreaking energy source, we have gathered some must-know information about the exciting production, usage, and future of green hydrogen.

What is green hydrogen?

Before diving into the details of what makes green hydrogen “green,” it is essential to note that there are multiple categories—or "colors"—of hydrogen based on production methods. The three most commonly known are grey, blue, and more recently, green. Each has a distinctive production method that results in various byproducts and byproduct storage methods.

Grey hydrogen is produced using methane as a fuel source, resulting in a direct carbon output during its manufacturing process. Grey hydrogen is currently the most used method of production because of the accessibility of natural gas and ease of production.

Though it uses the same production method as grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen stores the produced CO2 underground. This limits the carbon released into the atmosphere and the resulting environmental consequences.

Green hydrogen uses an electrolysis method fueled by renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. This means that the resulting product is produced without CO2 emission, unlike in the production process for grey and blue hydrogen.

Colors of hydrogen diagram
Source:  Applied Economics Clinic

How is green hydrogen produced?

Green hydrogen is procured through electrolysis which is the method of separating water into both hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting byproduct of this method is oxygen. Furthermore, when the source of electricity for this process is renewable, this results in a product free from carbon emissions.

In contrast, grey and blue hydrogen are produced through a thermal process called steam-methane reformation, in which natural gas and steam are put under immense pressure, about 3–25 bar pressure, along with a catalyst which creates a reaction that separates the desired hydrogen. One of the byproducts of this process is CO2, which is either released or stored.

Comparing these three processes of hydrogen production reveals the promise of green hydrogen as an eco-friendly energy source due to its net-zero emission of CO2 compared to other production methods primarily used today.

Green hydrogen production challenges

So what is stopping an overall adoption of green hydrogen over grey and blue hydrogen?

As of now, a few barriers are stopping a general advancement in green hydrogen's commercial and industrial usage. The primary obstacle to hydrogen production is the overall cost. The necessary technology, transportation, and renewable fuel costs are often too great for governments and industries to see as worth investing.

Secondly, many cite transportation and storage problems as another downside to green hydrogen production.

The cost of production

The first challenge to green hydrogen production is its cost compared to other fuel and energy sources. This can be attributed to a few factors, such as the lack of built infrastructure to support the production process and the current price of renewable energy to power the production process.

But with several countries pushing for more research into how to generate environmentally friendly energy, we see a more considerable investment into lowering these initial costs. In fact, renewable energy is now one of the cheapest forms of energy per kilowatt-hour.

The International Energy Agency issued a report in 2019 highlighting how attitudes and subsequent actions are shifting to lower the costs associated with green hydrogen production. Citing the increase in the number of countries developing policies that directly support investment into the hydrogen production sector, they have noticed a decrease in the initial cost of production of green hydrogen.

Storage and transportation

The second challenge to green hydrogen production is primarily rooted in its storage and transportation ability. Due to the chemical makeup of hydrogen, certain conditions must be met to keep the element stable and in good condition for energy usage.

There has been a push to develop technology capable of storing and transporting green hydrogen. These technologies focus on storing and transporting hydrogen for a conventional driving range, typically around 300 miles. Constraints such as the weight of the transport, volume, safety, and cost are considered to attract further investments and support.

Hydrogen is produced and then distributed within a small range for distribution purposes. Understandably, the infrastructure of fueling stations for commercial use is still relatively limited but is expected to expand to better support the increase in green hydrogen usage. Currently, hydrogen is distributed through three methods: Pipeline, high-pressure tube trailers, and liquefied hydrogen tankers.

Pipelines are the least-expensive method to deliver hydrogen and have a larger capacity for what they can transport. However, in the United States, there is a limited number of pipelines available for delivery which is the primary limiting factor of this method.

High-pressure tube trailers can transport compressed hydrogen gas in a high-pressure environment through many methods such as by truck, ship, or train. This method is highly versatile, but a hefty price tag comes with that versatility. In addition, this method is often limited to 200 miles or less because of the high-pressure environment in which the hydrogen is kept.

Liquefied hydrogen tankers use cryogenic liquefaction, which is a process that lowers the temperature of the hydrogen until it becomes a liquid. The liquid is then more efficiently transported over longer distances though the liquefaction process is more costly, increasing the total cost of this method considerably.

How is green hydrogen used?

How exactly will green hydrogen fit into our everyday fuel and energy use? Luckily for us, green hydrogen is incredibly versatile in its uses and has excellent potential for both industrial practices and routine commercial use!

Industrial uses

Green hydrogen can be used in many facets of the industrial process, but just to name a few:

  1. Used to replace current hydrogen feedstocks (blue and grey)
  2. Industrial heating practices
  3. Chemical production (often used as a catalyst)
  4. Iron and steel production
  5. Food production Semiconductor manufacturing
  6. Oil and gas refineries
  7. Heavy machinery fuel source

Commercial uses

Though there has been a lot of focus and growth on the industrial capabilities of green hydrogen, there are some promising commercial uses as well:

  1. Household heating
  2. Burning for electricity
  3. Fuel cells for household use like laptops, cellphones, or generators
  4. Fuel cells for automotive use
Toyota displays its new car concept at an exhibition about future mobility and fuel cell cars.

Driving forward: Hydrogen cars

Hydrogen cars or fuel cell cars run on electricity but operate differently than your typical battery-powered plug-in or hybrid model. A fuel cell car runs on hydrogen that reacts electrochemically with oxygen. This process generates electricity which is used to power the car. Through this method, the only emission released is water.

Fuel cell cars typically are about the same price as electric or hybrid models. Companies such as Toyota offer hydrogen fueling cards to cover the cost of fueling for a designated amount of time. This dramatically decreases the running cost of the car when compared to traditional and electric vehicles. In addition, there are potential tax rebates set by each state available, so doing a quick search can show you how much to expect to save following the purchase of your new fuel cell vehicle.

Regarding range, fuel cell cars can carry enough hydrogen for a 300-400 mile range. Unlike electric vehicles and how they refuel with a lengthy charge time, hydrogen-fueled cars can be refueled as quickly as a standard car. Although hydrogen prices are higher than regular gas prices, you will need to fill up considerably less often, reducing the overall cost.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

The increased popularity of green hydrogen

The International Energy Agency reports that there has been a steady growth in demand for hydrogen as an energy source since 1975. Though this growth is typically seen being met by gray and blue hydrogen, there is a recent push to move towards a "green hydrogen economy."

A green hydrogen economy is the idea that as a replacement to our current fossil fuel-based economy, green hydrogen and other green alternative energy methods like the usual suspects of wind and solar, but also new possibilities from tidal and even nuclear fusion will be the economic lifeforce of the future. This is a growing philosophy that many investors are getting behind.

An example of private investments in this future is Mitsubishi Power Americas, a large industrial engineering group specializing in designing power generation and storage systems that will fuel the future. They hope to commercialize green hydrogen production further, contributing to replacing fossil fuel-driven energy sources.

With greater demand and increasing investor action, there is momentum for a future in which green hydrogen is an energy staple. Some investors are still having doubts about the prospects of green hydrogen because of the obstacles that stand in the way of mass production and transportation, but that is not stopping its growth in (atomic) mass popularity!

Green hydrogen development and production in the United States

To lead development and production, the United States has set up a hydrogen division within the U.S. Department of Energy. Most efforts in the United States are focused on researching how to move away from gray and blue hydrogen sources toward green hydrogen.

On July 27, 2022, the DOE announced a funding opportunity to accelerate research and development in green hydrogen technology and grid resilience. This is an active effort to alleviate current technological and infrastructure barriers toward reaching a green hydrogen economy.

This news was shared in light of the Biden Administration’s goals for developing and achieving carbon-free electricity by 2034, in which green hydrogen plays a considerable role.

Are there any drawbacks to green hydrogen?

The current biggest drawback to green hydrogen is its cost of production and transportation. Because of the lack of infrastructure set in place to produce, store, and transport green hydrogen, the upfront cost seems incredibly daunting to investors.

Cost isn’t just a concern for investors but is also important to consumers. The good news is that as production increases for green hydrogen, namely in fuel cells, the cost to the average consumer will dramatically decrease. The Department of Energy released its predictions as to what will happen to the cost of fuel cell vehicles as production increases over time and noticed a sharp decrease in cost. This is a promising look into our hydrogen-fueled future!

Your green hydrogen questions, answered

Can green hydrogen generate electricity?

Yes! In fuel cells, hydrogen will combine with oxygen, generating a reaction. This reaction is used in the battery to produce electricity. Different-sized fuel cells can power laptops, generators, etc.

There has been growing interest in the United States lately in using hydrogen as a fuel for power plants. Similar to how power plants all across America run today, there are plans to use green hydrogen to power these plants instead of their current fuel sources such as coal to produce electricity.

Is green hydrogen a renewable energy source?

Yes! This is because in order for the final byproduct to be considered green hydrogen, the method used must be powered by a clean, renewable energy source. Green hydrogen uses an electrolysis method fueled by renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. This means that the resulting product is produced without CO2 emission, unlike in the production process for grey and blue hydrogen.

What efforts are countries making towards green hydrogen production?

Countries worldwide acknowledge the importance of research and investment in green hydrogen. For example, Japan has highlighted the use of green hydrogen as one of its primary methods of reaching a genuinely carbon-neutral future. The government hopes to turn Japan’s energy consumption into a “hydrogen society,” citing its high energy efficiency and relatively low environmental impact.

The government of India also recognizes the growing importance of green hydrogen and sees it as an avenue for economic growth for the country. With the help of current energy producers in the country, India hopes to become an exporter of green hydrogen by 2030 and widen its use within its borders to meet current green energy goals.

Another example of global strides towards green hydrogen production would be the Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-Neutral Europe in the European Union. This three-phased plan seeks to decarbonize the EU’s current hydrogen production. Second, integrate green hydrogen as a fuel source within the EU’s energy system. Lastly, replace other fuel sources with green hydrogen to decarbonize energy usage.

Green hydrogen is being adopted as a promising carbon-free energy source. Moreover, countries worldwide recognize the untapped potential of green hydrogen in meeting their future green energy goals. In doing so, they greatly invest in green hydrogen production and infrastructure.

Is green hydrogen the fuel of the future?

This is the real question on everyone’s mind. When weighing the pros and cons of green hydrogen, there are many strong positives that outweigh the current negatives. Green hydrogen is a way for many countries to reach renewable energy goals without sacrificing productivity.

If you were to ask this same question five years ago, you might have gotten a different response simply because growth in research and development was slow and unyielding. But now, many recognize hydrogen as a promising fuel source for the future. And with this growing investment and attention, there have been significant strides toward an actual green hydrogen-fueled society.

Many now see the question of whether green hydrogen will be used in mass quantities as a question of when—not if. Since there is a push to see a hydrogen future come to fruition, it is now a race to see how quickly we can get there. These next five years will be critical in assessing just how quickly we as a collective can move away from fossil fuel-derived energy sources to clean energy such as green hydrogen.

Green hydrogen is becoming a hot-button topic for a good reason. As a result, significant investments and advancements are underway to address the current obstacles prohibiting mass green hydrogen usage. Green hydrogen is a versatile and safe form of energy that can power anything from the cell phone in your pocket to hydrogen vehicles, or even space travel.

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