The journey of hydrogen from hype to reality

With the world determined to tackle climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen is being hailed as fuel of the future

By Faisal Kazim

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Published: Tue 21 Dec 2021, 10:45 PM

Behind all the hype, you will often find some amount of real substance. After all, there is a reason people get overexcited. Let us deep-dive into one of last year’s most hyped topics: hydrogen.

First, a little bit of context. Hydrogen is an energy carrier. It is the most abundant element in our universe, but very little of it exists in its pure form on the earth, which is why it needs to be produced. It can be extracted from fossil fuels – a process which emits greenhouse gases. Hydrogen produced by this method is referred to as grey hydrogen. If the greenhouse gases are prevented from escaping into the atmosphere using carbon capture technologies, it is called blue hydrogen.

Hydrogen can also be extracted from water using electrolysis and clean electricity, in which case it is described as green hydrogen. Meanwhile, yellow hydrogen is produced by the same method – the only difference is that the electricity source used in electrolysis is based on nuclear energy instead of renewables.

Consuming hydrogen is usually clean, emitting only water vapour. With the world determined to tackle climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen is being hailed as nothing less than humanity’s fuel of the future. But is it simply hype?

Perhaps becoming our fuel of the future is extreme, but hydrogen could still play a unique role in addressing climate change. Through the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations have come together and committed to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. One of the requirements for achieving that target is for the world to generate net-zero emissions by 2050. Yet, there are several industries which have been challenging to decarbonise. These are known as hard-to-abate industries.

Consider iron, steel, and cement production, which are collectively responsible for more than 15 per cent of global emissions. Existing renewables struggle to produce the heat required in these industries.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, burns very hot, making it a clean alternative to fossil fuels. The aviation and maritime shipping industries, which contribute approximately 5 per cent of global emissions, are also hard to decarbonise.

Batteries are heavy, which makes them an unattractive option, whereas hydrogen is light, once again presenting a clean alternative to fossil fuels. There are several other applications where hydrogen is the best option we have today.

Producing hydrogen cleanly is becoming cheaper as well. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), green hydrogen could become cost-competitive by 2030. If you feel this is unrealistic, just look at what happened with solar photovoltaic (PV) energy. Within just 10 years, its cost dropped by more than 90 per cent. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the world.

Therefore, although it must be acknowledged that hydrogen will not be our only source of energy in the future, it could clearly play a key role in decarbonising large, hard-to-abate industries.

In addition, hydrogen could create opportunities that never existed before. In the future, countries with abundant wind or solar power may be able to export this energy via green hydrogen, helping the world fight climate change while creating new sources of income for themselves. As clean hydrogen production becomes cheaper, novel applications could emerge. For example, it is possible to develop clean synthetic fuels by combining green or blue hydrogen with captured carbon dioxide. Today, this process is expensive, but as costs drop, synthetic fuels will be able to rapidly reduce emissions related to the transport sector, which amount to more than 16 per cent of global emissions, without requiring the purchase of new vehicles.

At the Dubai Future Foundation, we recently published a report titled ‘Hydrogen: From Hype to Reality’, which identifies areas where hydrogen will likely play an important role. We have found that in addition to the environmental benefits, hydrogen can also directly and indirectly significantly contribute towards economic growth and job creation.

In the optimistic scenario of our analysis, hydrogen could add up to Dh32 billion annually to Dubai’s GDP by 2050, create more than 120,000 jobs between now and 2050, and offset carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 84 days of the UAE’s crude oil production per year. Despite the hype, it has become clear that the adoption of hydrogen can bring substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits.

The UAE has been quick to seize this opportunity and has already introduced several initiatives in this space. These include the launch of the UAE Hydrogen Leadership Roadmap, the opening of a green hydrogen production facility at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, the formation of the Abu Dhabi Hydrogen Alliance, and the recent announcement of a $5 billion green hydrogen hub co-developed by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar and France’s ENGIE. Countries around the world have now developed national hydrogen strategies, and hydrogen has found its place.

If hydrogen energy becomes reality, what other ideas hyped today could have real substance? Some consider direct air capture (DAC) technologies to be hype. DAC refers to technologies that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is later stored or converted for use elsewhere. Sceptics claim DAC would require too much land and energy. But does it still have a place in our future? Whether it’s nuclear fusion, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), or even the metaverse, let us keep an open mind, and let the hype fuel our imagination.

Faisal Kazim is senior project manager at Dubai Future Foundation

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