What is Hydrogen?

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Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe. It’s everywhere. Colourless, odourless, and tasteless, it’s ‘one of the main compounds of water and organic matter’ on Earth but you’ll also find it throughout our solar system. Our sun is 91% hydrogen. The stars beyond our galaxy are all made from hydrogen, too. There’s no shortage of hydrogen around us. And when you burn hydrogen, it emits water rather than a dangerous by-product like CO2. This makes has clean-energy potential. The problem is that hydrogen on Earth rarely exists in a pure form. It has to be extracted from other energy sources such as fossil fuels. It’s this extraction process – the processing of hydrogen from natural gas for example – that creates carbon waste as a by-product.  At the moment, around 95% of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. For IFL Science, Katie Spalding writes that even though hydrogen is considered to be a clean alternative, it’s actually being produced by fossil fuels and, therefore, it’s not clean at all.

What is Blue Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is colourless but different colours are used to describe the ways that it’s processed. For example, black hydrogen comes from coal and grey hydrogen comes from natural gas. There’s also green hydrogen which is produced using an electrical current to separate hydrogen from water. Electricity that’s been generated from a clean source – solar power, hydroelectrical power, wind power, etc – makes the extraction process green. Given the IPCC recent report on climate change and the immediate need to decarbonise economies and industries around the globe, green hydrogen is ideal.  But it’s not green hydrogen that’s making headlines – blue hydrogen is.

 

Blue hydrogen is produced in exactly the same way as grey hydrogen – via the burning of fossil fuels. But instead of the carbon waste being released into the atmosphere, it’s stored underground. Hydrogen is at the heart of the UK’s decarbonisation strategy which includes achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2050. On August 17th 2021, the Government released plans to turn the UK into a ‘world-leading hydrogen economy’ supporting 9,000 UK jobs and ‘unlocking £4 billion of investment’. But it’s not welcome news for everyone in the industry. Many are frustrated by the emphasis on a blue hydrogen route. Chris Jackson the head of the UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association stepped down following the Government’s announcement. He called the emphasis on blue hydrogen “at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals.” And the UK isn’t the only economy looking at a blue hydrogen solution. President Biden has committed to creating American jobs within the clean energy sector. In early August, a bill passed through the US Senate promising $8 billion to develop “clean hydrogen”.

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So Why is Blue Hydrogen Controversial?

A recent article published in Energy Science and Engineering claims that blue hydrogen may actually produce more greenhouse gasses. The study was jointly released by Cornell and Stanford Universities. Authors Robert Howarth and Mark Jacobson state that carbon capture will not effectively stop fugitive methane and upstream emissions of carbon dioxide from escaping. They argue that blue hydrogen’s carbon footprint could be 20% larger than ‘using either natural gas or coal directly for heat, or about 60% greater than using diesel oil for heat’. In short, blue hydrogen could actually be worse for the planet. Howarth goes on to say that it’s important that people don’t accept the industry’s ‘tenuous claim’ about blue hydrogen’s low and zero-emission status.

 

It should also be noted that it’s in the gas industry’s best interests to push for blue hydrogen. After all, it allows companies to continue producing fossil fuels albeit under the banner of an ‘eco-friendlier approach’. This would be a tremendous example of greenwashing. And that’s a fair criticism. Whilst we’re all being encouraged to lead eco-friendlier lifestyles and to turn our houses into environmentally-friendly homes, the truth is that much of the heavy lifting has to be done at the top.  We already know that there are 100 companies responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This list includes major gas companies. And whilst companies (even natural gas suppliers) should be encouraged to adapt, any changes must be for the better. If blue hydrogen can’t help to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, governments should not be investing so much time and money into supporting it.

 

The IPCC report was very clear. We have a limited window in which to reduce the impact that human activity is having on rising global temperature. Inside the report were 5 scenarios ranging from best to worst-case. The IPCC’s worst-case scenario has been described by several journalists as being ‘apocalyptic’. All we have to do to get to it is produce as much greenhouse gas as we are now.  Blue hydrogen, therefore, now has quite a few people worried.

Why Blue Hydrogen Could Be Useful in the Short Term

In a post defending blue hydrogen, International Law Firm Pinsent Masons writes that criticisms ‘ignore the role that blue hydrogen will play in the development of the hydrogen industry…in the coming decades.’  The article goes onto say that for the hydrogen market to scale quickly, things need to start moving now. Certainly, it could be argued that blue hydrogen is the essential stepping stone away from current carbon-intensive practices towards the green hydrogen that many are pushing for in the future. Blue is therefore a stop on the road towards green hydrogen. What’s more, the world does not produce enough clean electricity to allow for green hydrogen. Alone, it can’t support demand in the same way that blue hydrogen can. Pinsent Masons also writes that ‘green hydrogen is currently between two and three times more expensive than blue hydrogen’. It could be another decade until green hydrogen is at a price that’s going to be palatable to industries, governments, and customers.  Blue hydrogen is cheaper. IFL Science compares current processing prices for hydrogen.

  • Grey hydrogen costs around a dollar per kilogram
  • Blue hydrogen is around $3 per kilogram
  • And green more than $4 per kilogram.

Green hydrogen can’t meet global power needs. It is why blue hydrogen is so appealing to those within the gas industry and outside it. But is it really the answer? And what if it actually makes everything worse?

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