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Hydrogen Today

Hydrogen is widely used today as a chemical product in various industries (petrochemical, food, electronics, metallurgical processing etc.). So far, the only significant energy application has been space programs. Hydrogen is however emerging as a major component for a future sustainable energy economy where hydrogen and electricity are foreseen to be complimentary sustainable energy carriers (EuropeanCommission:RTDInfoSpecial:2007) with hydrogen especially valid for movable or portable applications. Hydrogen offers a unique method of reducing the fossil fuel dependency while increasing the usage of renewable energy sources.

The main driving forces to introduce hydrogen as an energy carrier are based on the limited fossil fuel resources in general, and the implicit political dependencies creating a widespread and high level political need to secure and diversify national energy supplies (EuropeanCommission:EUR20719EN:2003). Environmental concerns on urban pollution and the greenhouse effect are also important drivers. Hydrogen as an energy carrier is thought to take a key role to combine and to apply different renewable and sustainable energy sources.

Concerns over environmental impacts of continued fossil fuel use are leading to development of decarbonisation technologies (IEA:2001). In the short term, it is believed that such technologies will be a source for low-cost hydrogen production. Currently about 90 percent of the world’s hydrogen production is based on fossil fuels and mainly natural gas (NOU:2004:11). In the long term, the production needs to be based on the renewable energy sources in order to reduce the pollution problem in a sustainable way. In the mean time hydrogen production might be based on fossil fuels (natural gas reforming, coal gazification) with CO2 sequestration and H2 production at nuclear installations. Hydrogen as an energy carrier is still in its infancy, and will probably not have a significant market share for 10 to 15 years from now. However, hydrogen production, storage and conversion technologies have reached a technical state which already makes its use as an energy carrier highly interesting -although many improvements and new discoveries are still possible and needed. On the other hand, a number of challenges have to be overcome to make hydrogen a commercially viable large-scale actor on the energy marked. Furthermore, the technology can be expected to change substantially as a consequence of more widespread use of hydrogen.

Urban vehicles running on hydrogen are seen as one important application and can contribute to reduced emissions in city centres. This requires that national authorities, industry and research institutes work closely together to facilitate a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and a regulatory framework allowing safe introduction of commercial hydrogen vehicles and refuelling stations. The development of an improved understanding and knowledge of safety aspects related to hydrogen are very important to facilitate such a process. The same aspects are valid for stationary hydrogen applications, e.g. stationary use of hydrogen fuel cells.

In the long term, the vision is the transition to a “hydrogen society” where hydrogen, derived without pollution from renewable energy sources, will become a clean energy carrier as widely used as electricity, with the leading role in all application requiring energy to be stored, for transport in particular. Hydrogen production paths will include solar, water (tidal energy, currents), biological and other renewable energy sources, in theory leading to nearly inexhaustible supplies of hydrogen. Hydrogen can then be utilised in combined heat/power generation, in industry, and in every form of transport in ships, vehicles, trains and aeroplanes. It is expected that fuel cells will be the solution of choice for implementing hydrogen, as this is the cleanest and most efficient means to put this energy vector to use in the application. Coupling renewable energy resources with hydrogen storage will reduce the impact of low/variable capacity factors and enable energy to be supplied when and where needed. Efficient and cost-effective hydrogen storage is therefore a key to the provision of renewable power on demand.

In the future, refuelling stations for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles might be part of the infrastructure like conventional gas stations are today. Hydrogen and its associated technologies therefore have to reach safety acceptance by the public and approval by the relevant authorities. There is currently a large, well-established delivery system for hydrocarbon fuels (gasoline, natural gas, propane, etc.). A hydrogen-fuelled fleet of vehicles will require duplication of much of the existing gasoline dominated infrastructure. The very large investments required will be a serious hurdle for the market driven introduction of hydrogen technologies. However, these may be reduced by considering the feasibility and safety of utilizing the existing natural gas pipeline networks for hydrogen transport, as well as on-site production of hydrogen. More information about hydrogen trnsport in natural gas pipelines can be found on the NaturalHy website

All these new means of using hydrogen raise the important question of how to ensure the safe introduction of this new energy carrier for use by the general public.


{European Commission, Directorate-General for Research, Directorate-General for Energy and Transport} (2003) Hydrogen energy and fuel cells, a vision of our future. Final Report of the High Level Group, RTD Info, EUR 20719 EN, Brussels.(BibTeX)
{European Commission, Directorate-General for Research, Sustainable Energy Systems} (2007) Inside the Seventh Framework Programme. RTD Info Special June 2007, Brussels.(BibTeX)
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Page last modified on February 20, 2009, at 08:20 PM