Harnessing Energy with Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Over the recent years there has been a rising determination to decrease the carbon emissions our world releases. 34.8 billion tonnes of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels for energy and cement production in 2020 (1) .


Solar wind electricity has increased significantly. Electricity is 20% sustainably produced through windmills in Europe (2), while there is still another 80% of energy generated through fossil fuels. Considering that 80% of our energy is still sourced unsustainably, companies now hope to utilise hydrogen more and more for sustainable energy consumption.


Gaining electricity from hydrogen is a part of green energy production. In simple terms, electricity is run through water which allows us to split the H2O molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used as an energy carrier and is considered: green hydrogen. There is a constant need for innovative and sustainable solutions to energy consumption and creation due to rising demand. Unfortunately, there is an increase in the detrimental effects unsustainable methods of electricity production are having on our planet. Hence, hydrogen fuel cells may be on the rise in the energy market and help with some of the dramatic energy challenges we are continuously facing.


What is the Energy Crisis?

The energy cycle starts where the cycle of oil, gas and coal ends. These have been the large producers of the greenhouse gases (GHG) that cloud the atmosphere today affecting the globe immensely. There have been notable changes in the climate due to the burning of oil and coal in order to produce energy. The obvious is the rising temperatures that were noted to be 1.09 °C higher in the 2011-2020 decade than between 1850-1900 (6). The WMO has said 2021 to be the sixth or seventh warmest year ever recorded (6).

  • Indoor air pollution using combustible fuels for household energy causes 1.6 million deaths annually ​​(5) (6 out of every 10 of these deaths were women and girls).

  • Data Centres account for 3% of global electricity

  • In 2020, 13% of the world lacked access to electricity and in 2030 the UN aims to double the rate of energy efficiency.


Causes of the Energy Crisis

The global energy demand and consumption is increasing to the point where we are predicted in the coming decades to face shortages in the fossil fuels we use today. They are becoming scarce resources with unlimited wants.


Overconsumption

The overall consumption at this point in time the majority is reliant on non-renewable resources such as oil, gas, coal and uranium. At the rate oil is used up it will be the first resource to run out in between 40 to 60 years time from now.


Overpopulation

The world's population is projected to be 10 billion by the year 2050. According to the international energy agency the global energy demand in 2030 will increase by more than 50% due to economics booms, if no further policies are placed.


Ageing infrastructure

A reason for energy shortage and scarcity is the poor infrastructure that generates power. The outdated equipment limits energy production. It is crucial to maximise the power generated.


Energy waste

Energy waste is the wastage of an energy source with particular fuels and electricity. The reduction in energy waste would allow for large amounts of energy saving.


Environmental

Traditional energy sources being used produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, harming the environment and reducing the biodiversity of an area.


Economic and socio-political

The economy is constantly wanting to grow and develop but energy is essential for that. The energy crisis has several impacts on the development model of the economy. When the energy market fails, an energy shortage starts causing socio-political issues.


Ways To Prevent The Energy Crisis:


Source: https://solarimpulse.com/energy-crisis-solutions#


1. Energy transition to renewable energy sources

This would be shifting from sources such as fossil fuels to total renewable sources that also do not emit greenhouse gases. Overall the renewable sources are a clean and sustainable alternative. These include solar power, hydropower, wind, geothermal and biomass energy.


2. Energy efficiency and conservation

We must reduce the amount of energy consumed. Modernising and improving energy infrastructure and replacing the old devices can allow a place to be energy efficient. An example of smart infrastructure out there is smart grid solutions and smart cities.


3. Hydrogen economy

To preserve our world and revert some of the drastic changes climate change has brought about so far we must stop global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial stages. The global carbon emissions must hit zero by 2050. There have been many ways to get this into the right direction but there is one method that has been gaining attention. Green hydrogen which is only produced via renewable power and it is a clean burning molecule. Hydrogen does not affect the earth's temperatures and therefore can assist us to decarbonise certain sectors, specifically the chemical, iron, steel industries, and transportation services.


Renewable energy can only get us to a 50-60% reduction in the total emission. However, to get decarbonisation to zero we also need the hydrogen economy.


However, hydrogen due to its highly reactive properties is not found on its own but rather joined in molecules. Hence this means in order to use hydrogen for energy production we must separate these molecules. A common compound used is water, where high amounts of energy is required to split up molecules.


Hydrogen itself is a clean molecule. But in places such as the United States hydrogen has been extracted from fossil fuels in pollutant heavy processes. Hydrogen production globally is responsible for 843 metric tons of carbon dioxide.


This is what makes green hydrogen appealing. Green hydrogen and fuel cells, however, are expensive. Furthermore, there is a lack of infrastructure to transport and store it. There are upcoming solutions and if these work it could accelerate the hydrogen economy to 2.5 trillion in direct revenue.

  • The current hydrocarbon economy is becoming impractical because of increasing demand and diminishing resources. The hydrogen economy could act as a replacement because of its higher energy density and its smaller negative impact on the environment.

  • It can be utilised in sectors of the economy that have been hard to decarbonise, such as steelmaking and marine transport.

  • It may also serve as a long-term storage medium in the power industry.

  • The hydrogen economy is limited because it is difficult to transport and store hydrogen. In addition, the dangers associated with hydrogen limit its practical application.

  • Hydrogen is really an energy carrier or storage medium rather than an energy source in itself.

  • As a consequence, governments and industries around the world are increasingly focusing their efforts on building out the infrastructure necessary to support a hydrogen economy.


Hydrogen Fuel Cells

These fuel cells are gaining popularity and as time passes the hydrogen economy sees more start up companies selling these energy solution alternatives. Fuel cells work in a way to convert electrochemical energy into usable electricity. This idea was invented in 1839 by William Grove by combining hydrogen and oxygen to form water. Fuel cells, similar to batteries, convert potential chemical energy into electrical energy which produces heat as a by-product. Unlike batteries which store energy within themselves, fuel cells are able to continuously generate electricity as long as they have hydrogen and oxygen pumping through them.



Source: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php


Analysis of Hydrogen Cells:


Case Study: GenCell

GenCell is a company in the hydrogen economy that bases their products around ammonia based hydrogen fuel cells (3). GenCell also aims to distribute their product to LEDCs such as Indonesia. These fuel cells can act as back up generators to replace those highly flammable as they run on diesel (2).

GenCell has developed a cracking device that extracts hydrogen from the ammonia, releasing surplus nitrogen into the atmosphere while the remaining hydrogen is fed into the adjacent fuel cell. A key advantage of their designed cracker is its ability to use only a small part of the reaction energy to stimulate a continuous cracking process, meaning no grid power is required. Additionally, there is now a catalyst that can break water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and through the addition of nitrogen there is the formation of ammonia.


Often the ammonia is created using the carbon-intensive Haber-Bosch process; there is still the issue associated with carbon emissions in upstreams of the production line, even if the fuel cell itself releases nothing but water.


Overall it is a rising solution on the market helping to drive the world into a more sustainable direction where in this case the SDGs 7 and 13 can be reached to a certain extent. However, there seems to still always be an issue somewhere along the lines till the final outcomes are reached. In the hope of further investments and innovation the world can go towards decreasing carbon emissions drastically.


Citations

  1. CO2 emissions. (n.d.). Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions

  2. Creating a viable hydrogen economy. (2021, June 3). Deloitte Netherlands. https://www2.deloitte.com/nl/nl/pages/energy-resources-industrials/articles/creating-a-viable-hydrogen-economy.html

  3. GenCell. (2022, January 9). GenCell - Fuel Cell Generators. https://www.gencellenergy.com/

  4. GenCell. (2021, November 30). Backup power supply. GenCell - Fuel Cell Generators. https://www.gencellenergy.com/markets-applications/backup-power/

  5. ​​Indoor Air Pollution and Household Energy. (n.d.). WHO | World Health Organization. Retrieved January 11, 2022, from https://www.who.int/heli/risks/indoorair/indoorair/en/

  6. State of Climate in 2021: Extreme Events and Major Impacts. (2021, November 2). World Meteorological Organization. https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/state-of-climate-2021-extreme-events-and-major-impacts