As the most abundant element on earth, hydrogen could be the most environmentally friendly fuel – if the extraction process can be made greener and more cost-efficient
Hydrogen makes up 13.5% of atoms in the earth’s crust, but only 0.75% of that by weight as it’s so light. It is also the most abundant element in the universe – found in the sun, most of the stars and the planet Jupiter.
Hydrogen as an element rarely exists alone and is usually found as part of compounds such as water (H2O). It is expensive and energy-intensive to extract hydrogen from compounds and convert it into energy we can use.
One of its first practical uses was filling balloons and airships, but a hydrogen leak and resulting fire is widely blamed for the crash of the Hindenburg airship in 1937, which resulted in 36 deaths.
Hydrogen is used in the production of ammonia, which comprises one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. Ammonia is a key component in fertilisers for farming as ammonium nitrate fertilisers release nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants.
The chemicals industry has the largest share of the hydrogen market. It is also used in aerospace and automotive, where the APAC region is expected to grow fastest, as it is increasingly used in refineries and in fuel cells for cars.
Hydrogen fuel cells, which only have water as an exhaust product, are being developed by car makers including Toyota (left). Hyundai expects to produce 40,000 fuel cell vehicles a year by 2022.
General Motors built its first vehicle powered by hydrogen in 1966. Now it is used to power buses and cars.
Australia has committed $370m towards developing the technology to extract and utilise hydrogen. Ministers say the industry could generate 8,000 jobs and $11bn a year in GDP by 2050. France has also recently announced an investment of €100m.
What they say
“The years 2020 to 2030 will be for hydrogen what the 1990s were for solar and wind.”
Pierre-Etienne Franc, secretary of the Hydrogen Council
“Hydrogen will play an important role in a low-carbon future, both as an energy product and as an industrial feedstock.”
Bob Dudley, group chief executive, BP
“Hydrogen may never make sense for consumer vehicles. But it does make sense for B2B and B2C vehicles that do community standardised shuttling and personal transportation services.”
Karl Brauer, executive publisher, Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book
According to McKinsey, hydrogen could meet 18% of the world’s energy demand, create 30m jobs and help to reduce six gigatons of CO2 a year. Key drivers of growth in the market include the chemicals industry and automotive fuel cell production, while it is restrained by factors such as the cost and difficulty of transportation. While hydrogen itself is a clean fuel, almost 95% is produced from fossil fuels, leading some to question whether it could be a green alternative to traditional combustion engines. It is possible to produce hydrogen sustainably using solar or wind energy to split water molecules – researchers at Stanford University in the US have devised a way to generate hydrogen fuel using solar power, electrodes and saltwater.