Is there a future for hydrogen energy?

This week, Tesla co-founder Elon Musk called hydrogen power a ‘scam’. Musk said the technology is flawed because ‘the energy equation is terrible’. He also pointed out that hydrogen is very reactive, and therefore it is difficult to stop it bonding with other elements. Clearly, he’s not the most objective critic, seeing as hydrogen-fuelled cars such as the Toyota Mirai are direct competitors of Musk’s battery electric vehicles.

Not everyone thinks the idea of hydrogen fuel is ‘mind bogglingly stupid’ – it’s used as rocket fuel and some people are hailing hydrogen as the future of the transport industry. So is there a reason hydrogen has been overlooked for so long as a common form of renewable energy?

How does hydrogen energy work?

In some respects, a fuel cell works in a similar way to a battery, in that both use a chemical reaction to create electricity. Hydrogen energy is obtained through electrolysis (using electricity to separate hydrogen and water).

Pros of hydrogen power

  • Renewable. In gas form, hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in our universe. Although it is commonly attached to other elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.
  • Non-toxic. The only by-product is water.
  • Efficient. 90% energy conversion when used in vehicles and 3x more powerful than gas – less is needed to do more, compared to fossil fuels.

Cons of hydrogen power

  • Storage is difficult – hydrogen has to be stored under high pressure because of the nature of its composition. Because of this, there are not many hydrogen fuel stations. Many more would have to be built for it to hydrogen use to be upscaled for commercial viability. This would be expensive!
  • Sensors would need to be inbuilt in any technology using hydrogen fuel. Like petroleum, it is highly flammable, but a leak is harder to detect because it is odourless.
  • Expensive to produce – hydrogen is difficult to free from other elements it bonds itself to. Because of the cost of production, its uses are currently restricted and it is not a commercial option. Therefore it is largely the preserve of the rich – and NATO!
  • The biggest issue of them all – and it’s a huge one – is that the current electrolysis process uses more energy to extract the hydrogen than the total yield of the manufactured hydrogen fuel. This is difficult for any proponent to brush off!

So does it have a future?

There are several reasons why hydrogen energy seems like a good idea. It is already used to powerspace rockets because it has the lowest molecular weight of any known substance and burns with extreme intensity. Some think it could be commercialised for use in aircrafts.

However, at the moment it is ultimately a bit pointless unless it can be upscaled. If hydropower became more readily available, and the price dropped considerably it may become a more attractive prospect for consumers. In order for this to happen, technology would need to be developed to produce the fuel using far less energy. Whether or not this is possible remains to be seen!

Think we missed something? Do you have a different opinion?

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