Cutting Through the Hydrogen Hype

Rosemary Barnes
10 min readOct 2, 2020

What are the applications with real potential, and what is just hot air?

(Shutterstock)

What is the go with hydrogen these days? Everyone is talking about it all of a sudden! It is literally the most abundant element in the universe, and also plentiful on earth, making up 2/3 of the atoms in water and present in vast volumes of organic compounds. Hydrogen was first produced artificially in 1671 and discovered as an element in 1766. It has been quietly going about its business for hundreds of years before suddenly a couple of years ago, people started to pay attention. It is fair to say that right now hydrogen is having a bit of a moment!

I love a new technology. Pretty much any new technology gets me excited. But I will admit I am a little bit confused and conflicted about hydrogen.

The current hydrogen hype is about “green hydrogen.” That’s hydrogen produced from green electricity in a process called electrolysis. Making hydrogen from electricity is not an innovation, this process has been around for over 200 years, but hydrogen produced in this way is rare, making up less than 0.1% of current global hydrogen production. The other 99.9% comes from fossil fuel sources (“blue”, “grey” or “brown” hydrogen). The vast majority is produced from natural gas, with coal coming in second as a source of hydrogen. This is because it costs about three times less to make hydrogen from these sources than from electrolysis. Today, the primary uses of hydrogen are in industrial processes such as oil refining, ammonia and steel production. But the current hype about green hydrogen is not only to replace dirty hydrogen for clean in these existing applications. Instead, the plan is to expand to a range of new applications such as passenger cars and electricity generation.

Producing hydrogen with electricity is a 200-year-old process (Shutterstock)

On the one hand, I think it is cool to see a lot of governments rallying behind a new technology development that could potentially speed the green energy transition. On the other hand, I am sceptical about many of the proposed applications. I do not doubt that there are several applications…

--

--

Rosemary Barnes

Clean technology development consultant | “Engineering with Rosie” on YouTube bit.ly/3hVkrLb