Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe but naturally occurring hydrogen on earth is rare. This is because it is highly reactive, and so it reacts with most elements to form compounds that we see around us today. Hydrogen is found in pretty much all the food we eat, in fossil fuels to power our cars and also in water, which is made up of two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom.
If hydrogen is isolated and ignited with a flame in air, it will combust fiercely and produce heat and water as a by-product. There are already cars that run solely on hydrogen, which means that these cars are 100% emission free. So hydrogen is abundant and combusts with zero dangerous emissions, which makes it a perfect candidate for energy storage.
How can hydrogen combat volatilities in electricity demand?
Many countries have electricity demand volatilities, where a large amount of electricity is needed at rush hour, and again when people come home and use appliances during the evening. Conversely, while people are asleep at night, demand is much lower. This is a rather simplistic model, but it demonstrates the electricity demands of the modern world.
Unfortunately electricity cannot be stored, and at the moment most is either used or wasted as it is produced. However, if we intervene correctly we can transfer the excess electricity into another form of potential energy such as hydrogen. It can then be used to create electricity when required, thereby reducing the volatility of demand on the grid.
Producing hydrogen for grid storage
The main commercial process used for creating pure hydrogen is steam reforming, which involves breaking down a hydrocarbon into hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
However, as an energy storage measure for the grid, the most suitable method of creating hydrogen is through a process called electrolysis, which is simply using electricity and water. Importantly, hydrogen can be produced using electricity sourced from renewable sources such as wind and solar. Therefore when there is excess supply capacity, such as during the night when demand is also low, this excess electricity can be used to produce the hydrogen.
The process of the electrolysis of water involves passing an electrical current through water, which then produces pure hydrogen gas and oxygen. Two electrodes are positioned in the water, and when an electrical current is passed down the cathode (the negatively charged electrode) hydrogen bubbles out, while at the anode (the positively charged electrode) oxygen is released.
Another potential mechanism for making hydrogen is using algae or cyanobacteria, which use the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Under normal conditions, however, hydrogen production is secondary to the production of compounds that the organisms use to support their growth. However specialised enzymes can be introduced to suppress sugar production in the organism so it produces much more hydrogen gas. This research is still at an early stage, but the paper that describes the process can be found here.
What do we do with the hydrogen sas produced?
This hydrogen gas can then be stored and used in a fuel cell to create electricity (or it can be burnt to power a traditional turbine/ generator system). In a fuel cell, the hydrogen is combined with oxygen to create electricity without producing any heat. There are several advantages of producing electricity with a fuel cell rather than combusting the hydrogen. The fuel cell operates very efficiently, is very reliable and the only by-product is water – an obvious environmental bonus.
The future for hydrogen mass storage
The future seems bright for hydrogen as a mass storage technique. The ability to create hydrogen by applying an electric current to water when there is excess supply in the grid is a very simple process. ITM Power, based in the UK, are currently building an infrastructure to create hydrogen on a large scale by using electrolysis to power industry and road vehicles.
The electrolysis units are then positioned where the gas is required. This removes the cost of implementing the infrastructure required to pump the hydrogen between locations, or to carry the hydrogen gas in lorries.
The test units they currently have in operation create 5kg of hydrogen gas over a 24-hour timeframe. It takes roughly 60kWh of electricity to produce 1kg of hydrogen and that would cost about £7.20 at today’s electricity prices. If this was used in car it would work out at about £0.12 / mile, where as a traditional petrochemical engine would work out at about £0.18 / mile.
However if the electricity required to make the hydrogen was sourced 100% from renewable technologies, then the whole process would be 100% emission free.
The major issue with hydrogen gas
Whilst hydrogen does sound like a genuine mass storage contender, there is one main issue with it, which is storage. It is difficult to store because it has very low volumetric energy density. It is 3.2 times less dense than natural gas and 2,700 times less dense than gasoline. Therefore to store it, it needs to be compressed, liquefied or chemically combined prior to storing. A standard method to do this on a large scale needs to be formalised to ensure that it becomes economical to store the hydrogen.
Could hydrogen be the answer to grid energy storage
In a word, yes! Producing hydrogen can be done now and hydrogen has a very high specific energy (energy per unit mass). However the mechanism for producing the gas has to be standardised so economies of scale are introduced into its production, helping to bring the cost of production down.
The major drawback with hydrogen is that it takes up such a large space when it is stored. Therefore new, more effective storage processes will need to be introduced, to make its storage economically viable. Rather than turning off wind turbines to prevent excess electricity going into the grid, hydrogen storage in fuel cells is an excellent way to conserve energy.
Self Sustaining Communities in Britain
July 18, 2012
The suspension bridge, penicillin, first intercity railway. What do these things all have in common? Answer – they are all Great British discoveries, with varying degrees of desirable effects.
More importantly, these inventions are synonymous with a time when Great Britain powered ahead of the world using an innovative mindset by using practical solutions that resulted in elevating London as the world capital of the merchant trade. Today, we find ourselves in a position where other countries have not only caught up with us, but have actually overtaken us. This is great for the rest of the world, as it as means that economic wealth is spreading globally.
However, as more countries follow the successful British Industrial model of development, the world in which we live has become more and more polluted, and is also struggling to meet the demand for energy that is driving this change. Britain itself has unfortunately become stuck; ironically laboured by the model it had previously exploited so successfully.
How is Britain being left behind?
So, given that Great Britain had previously spearheaded human development and innovation, why are we not now the leading proponents of green energy and green network solutions? The answer simply lies with the fact that we are well behind continental Europe in decarbonising our economy. Our recycle rate still hovers at around 20% and our renewable energy sources account for less than 5% of our total energy output. Germany, on the other hand, has a renewable energy rate five times higher than ours. Therefore, we are in no position to lecture others on what we believe are the right ways to make a sustainable economy move forward.
The economy at the moment is languishing. I feel that we really need to pull out all the stops out as a nation to make sure we create the right climate for ideas and innovation to allow us to lead the world once again; this time, by leading a green economy with green energy provision and greater energy efficiency. I know we can seize the initiative.
What can we learn from others – the mindset?
As Brits, we are proud of our heritage and our past, but we can no longer rest on our laurels. We pulled together as a nation in previous times of crisis, and we can do it again. If we look around, we can learn a great deal from other cultures as well. For example, after being devastated by war, Japan and Korea both galvanised their populations into action and, due to concerted effort and focus, rose to become two important global economies.
More specifically, when Japan was defeated after World War Two, it signalled to the nation that the values that had bought them to that point in their history were no longer relevant. They needed a new way of thinking and collaborating with the world to move forward. By observing and learning from our car industry, engineering projects, bridges, roads and railways (and those across Europe and the USA) – the Japanese were able to produce cars quickly, but with even better value for money. They also constructed more impressive roads and faster railways, and their business values and quest for innovation brought us household names including Sony, Canon and Nintendo.
In the United Kingdom, we have an aged distribution network both for electricity provision and in the supply of gas for heating. It is an industry that is continually struggling under the demand and requires increased maintenance focus and investment to keep at the same operating levels that we have at the moment. In the near future, the population of the UK is expected to exceed 70 million, resulting in demand for yet more energy. If we stick with relying on the old systems, it will result in actions such as digging up our roads, simply to install yet another transformer. This will cause more chaos and misery – we must confine this model to the history books.
What can we learn from others – are there any practical solutions?
One great idea that I have seen on the continent, and which I would like see applied in the UK, is to introduce a self-sustaining community model to replace the network model we have at the moment. On the island of Samso in Denmark, for example, their energy provision is operating entirely self-sufficiently (independent from the mainland), thereby allowing its inhabitants to live completely off-grid.
A CBS report described visiting there like ‘turning back the clock’; the town boasts idyllic features and buildings steeped with history. But on closer inspection, it is actually ‘way ahead of its time’. The island used to rely exclusively on oil and coal (much like the current energy solution we have in the UK), but since the end of the last decade, it has managed to reduce its carbon emissions by 140%, which when articulated means it has started to export electricity back to the mainland. More importantly, it has demonstrated that you don’t need a centralised model – the spine of a network in the middle of the country that relies on big polluting power stations and radioactive nuclear power plants to provide your home and business with the energy needs. It is far more localised than that.
This is a truly inspirational story for us all, and offers a municipalised model we should look closely at imitating. If you have been reading about key concepts in the news lately, such as smart grids, smart meters, feed-in-tariffs, solar PV and heat pumps, you may have started to build a picture of what our energy provision could look like over the next two decades.
How can Britain learn and adapt to the changes required?
The EcoIsland project on the Isle of Wight offers a perfect example of how Britain can learn. Although the projects that have currently been deployed on the island are small scale, like the one at Shale (renewable energy for a community housing area), the Eco-Islanders one day envision 120MW of power being produced by renewable sources.
Moreover, biomass, wave and tidal power will also have a major role to play. To make it more self-sustaining, the islanders would all be involved – they would have a stake in the energy business to ensure that they reap the benefits delivered. Therefore, this is just one step at the start of a long journey to show that a British community like the one on the Isle of Wight can one day be self sustaining and become the Samso of tomorrow.
But how do you convince millions of people to implement eco-friendly solutions in a major conurbation that houses millions of people and provides transportation for them? Well, closer to my home in London, a £30m Low Carbon (LCL) project has been initiated by UK Power Networks and is being funded out of OFGEM’s Low Carbon Network Fund to provide community-based proofs of concept. One day these can be leveraged as an all-encompassing solution for this great city.
This LCL project, located within the Mayor of London’s green zones, will look to implement solutions such as the one we have seen at Shale, but on a much bigger scale. Furthermore, for a big city like London, some of these solutions will also require behavioural shifts – for example users will have to be educated as to how to understand their smart meters so that businesses and households can make those optimal energy decisions. For transport networks, it will be necessary to show where electricity charging points are so that electric car users can optimally plan their journeys.
Keeping innovation and change in the mindset
I hope therefore, that over the next few years, we will see many changes in Britain, like some of those rapid changes that were experienced during the Industrial Revolution. Electricity sources are going to become more varied and we may well see electric vehicles taking over our roads soon. At this point, we have to be aware that, for this to happen, we need to climb some metaphorical mental mountains to try to catch up with the nations that are surging ahead of us. I have no doubt that with some dedication; we can eventually leap ahead, so as to once again be seen as leading the world from the front.
To conclude, this means keeping an open mind when encountering new technologies over the next few years. It is easy to stick with what we know – no one likes change – but we have been innovators in the past, and we can continue to be so. Wind turbines are something new – we must be ready to embrace them and realise that they are helping the UK back to a more important, and sustainable, position.
Hydrogen Powering Fuel Cells as a Solution for our Future Energy Needs
May 12, 2012
Why should we talk more about Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Technology?
You may have heard of hydrogen powered cars or fuel cell CHP boilers, they are relatively new products, but how exactly do they work?
In this blog we put the hydrogen fuel cell that powers them under the microscope. If we could somehow refine this and the associated technology underpinning it, and combine this with the right hydrogen fuel, we could potentially go a long way towards meeting our energy demands over the next hundred years. In doing so, we could reduce our dependence on petrochemicals.
A bit more about Hydrogen Fuel first
What is Hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the most plentiful gas found in our Universe. In fact it makes up about 75% of the Universe’s bionic mass and is famously symbolised as H2, because it exists as a molecule formed of two hydrogen atoms.
Hydrogen has the most energy potential out of all the fuels that are out there. Unfortunately on Earth it is not found as a standalone element, but tends to be combined with nitrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms to form more complex compounds. The most obvious resource where hydrogen can be extracted from is Water or H2O. But is also found in fuels such as methane, biogas, biomass energy and other traditional oil based fuels.
How can Hydrogen be extracted?
In order to be able to use hydrogen as a fuel, you need to be able to separate it from the source compounds such as water or traditional fuels. This process requires electrical energy, and the Hydrogen produced tends to be in gaseous form which then needs to be liquified. In an ideal situation the whole generation process is carried out using renewable energy; for example you can use commercial wind farms, solar power plants or a hydroelectric power plant to produce the hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen can also be produced as a by-product by using a cutting edge technology known as ocean thermal energy conversion or OTEC for short.
How safe is Hydrogen Fuel?
Hydrogen gas is explosively flammable; you may recall from history the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, where the hydrogen filled airship exploded mid air before it landed into New York.
As such, burning hydrogen gas in air is considered too dangerous a process to do on a large scale for electricity production.
Nowdays, hydrogen is used in fuel cells, where it undergoes a chemical reaction instead of combustion. This still means that large quantities of cooled liquid hydrogen need to get transported from where the gas is produced to where it is needed, but as their is no combustion involved, evidence shows that when proper procedures are followed, hydrogen fuel is no more dangerous than existing fossil fuels.
Now Take the Hydrogen to Power Fuel Cells
What are Fuel Cells?
To put it simply, fuel cells work like batteries, which have an electrode and cathode and an electrolyte between them, however the great thing about them is that they don’t require charging!
Unlike the combustion process, which has been the standard way of generating energy for hundreds of years, the fuel cells are all about creating energy by passing inputs through an electro chemical process, using fuel and air as part of the reaction. They are virtually zero carbon emitting, but at the same time produce pure water as one of the by-products.
How do Fuel Cells Work?
The hydrogen fuel acts as a catalyst at the cathode, creating a positively charged ion and an electrically charged electron. The proton then passes through the electrolyte while the charged electron passes through a circuit creating an electrical current (which is what is used to power hydrogen cars). At the same time oxygen in the air passes through the cathode and reacts with the ion and the electron to produce heat (which is used to produce hot water in CHP boilers) and water. That’s the process in a nutshell!
What Are Some Advantages of Fuels Cells vs. Conventional Combusting Fuels
The process is quieter as there is no moving parts
The process is more efficient – CHP cogeneration can generate efficiencies of fuel to energy of 90% and above. Current grid power based on fossil fuel base load operates with 30% efficiency
The process is clean – by-products produced is water if hydrogen fuel is used
Energy security – the electro chemical process can take hydrogen fuel or other hydrocarbons as well as various biofuels
Where are we with Fuel Cell Technology
Fuel Cell Technology Development in the UK
In the UK we are still having arguments about Gas vs. Nuclear Fission as being the base energy load for the next few decades. We are slowly bringing renewable technologies into the mix but at quite a slow rate (only 10% of the total energy supplied at the moment is from renewable resources). For example, onshore wind price per kWh generated has come down, however this has been offset as future development is being resisted by some local communities. Offshore wind on the other hand is subsidised but the kWh cost generated is still too high and this energy resource is intermittent. In addition we are still many years away from making marine energy (tidal energy and wave energy) pay off and seemingly even further away from increasing the scale of fuel cell technology to be even seen as a viable base load method of energy production.
However the UK can lead this area of research in other aspects, for example the process of commercialising the production of hydrogen fuel. Once hydrogen can be produced cheaply and without hindering the supply of fresh water supply, fuel cell technology solutions will take off!
Earlier we mentioned OTEC. UK companies such as BG and BP, the current leaders in gas, oil engineering and transportation of petrochemicals can therefore really leverage from this technology to produce the hydrogen fuel that we need – effectively using OTEC and upgrading unused oil rigs off the coast of the tropical oceans. Jobs and expertise can be maintained in this sector, which helps keep engineering alive in this country! Oil companies can use existing transportation infrastructure, and instead of transporting fossil fuels, could transport hydrogen fuel all round the world.
A bit more CHP Boilers, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles & Other Uses
As already mentioned fuel cell technology is currently being developed on a small scale for household appliances like CHP boilers. This will eventually replace the current CHP Boilers that are based on the Free Piston Sterling Engines. Companies such as Baxi and Ceres Power are looking to develop this technology so that it can be brought into the home, but it currently looks like this could be feasible in the second part of this decade.
The technology can also be applied to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. There are some excellent prototypes out there such as this one produced by Toyota. Closer to home we have Riversimple for example, vying to get their product out in the marketplace.
It is not just boilers and cars though, there are many other uses for fuel cells. Some of the noted ones include large fuel cell systems to power buildings, smaller systems for telecommunication equipment, uses for the military and use as replacement for battery charge systems in the home. In addition a big area of use is to handle applications such as primary power or auxiliary power units in a variety of transportation vehicles such as cars, buses and trucks.
Things are moving slowly with regards to hydrogen fuel cells, but they are moving in the right direction.
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