The great hydrogen revolution gathers pace

Clean power: Hydrogen can be produced from water by using renewable energy to power electrolysis. © Alamy

Are we on the cusp of a hydrogen revolution? A new material, similar to a bath sponge, could be the key to making the most plentiful element in the world the green fuel of the future.

A BBC journalist drives for an hour in a silent car, parks, and makes a cup of tea – from the exhaust pipe.

This is, of course, no ordinary pollution-releasing car. It is a car powered entirely by hydrogen, whose only waste product is hot water.

As countries scramble to meet the IPCC targets of 1.5 degrees maximum global warming, switching to clean energy sources for cars and other vehicles could be an environmental game-changer.

Hydrogen-fuelled cars may already exist, but two major roadblocks have prevented hydrogen from becoming a mainstream fuel.

First, lack of infrastructure: there are only 11 refuelling stations in the UK, for example. Second, since pure hydrogen does not occur naturally it has to be produced by splitting water, which requires energy – thereby, potentially reducing its green benefits.

However, a newly developed material could unlock hydrogen’s potential.

“It is like a bath sponge, but with very ordered cavities,” said US-based Professor Omar Farha, who led the research. Just one gram of this highly porous, metal-organic, framework has the same surface area as a football pitch, allowing it to store large volumes of hydrogen at a much lower pressure and cost.

So, are we on the cusp of a hydrogen revolution?

Future perfect?

Yes. As well as not producing any CO2, the resulting gas doesn’t contribute to air pollution when it’s burned. Advocates believe it could be the answer to one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise – heavy transport, such as lorries and buses.

No. Hydrogen will never really take off. Elon Musk, whose electric cars are the biggest rival to hydrogen-powered models, notoriously labelled hydrogen fuel cells “fool cells”. There is a long way to go before these vehicles enter the mainstream.

You Decide

  1. What is the most important new technology invented in your lifetime?

Activities

  1. Imagine hydrogen goes on to dramatically change the energy sector. Vehicles don’t use natural resources anymore, nor do they pollute the air. Write a one-page, sci-fi story set in this time. What would it be like? Is there a different threat in this world?

Some People Say...

“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe and offers the game-changing promise of clean power on a mass scale.”

Paul Hackett, energy writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hydrogen has the potential to be an environmentally game-changing clean fuel. Several countries have already invested in hydrogen-powered trucks, coaches, ships, and trains, showing their government's interest in pursuing hydrogen as a way to meet emission reduction targets. Countries in Asia are leading the way by installing hydrogen fuel pumps and investing in hydrogen-powered car manufacturing. Drone tests even suggest that hydrogen-powered air travel may soon be possible.
What do we not know?
Whether hydrogen will actually receive the support it needs to get off the ground. In order to become popular, it needs more funding and more scientific development – which history suggests can take a lot longer than expected. It also needs government support and investment from industry, which usually involves working out if the risks are worth the potential to make profits.

Word Watch

Hydrogen
The first element in the periodic table and the most common element in the Universe. Stars are mostly made up of hydrogen.
IPCC
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a global group of top climate scientists that produces annual reports on global warming.
Mainstream
When something is the ‘norm’ and commonly used.
Infrastructure
The structures and facilities (for example, buildings, roads, power supplies, pumps) needed for something to work.
Cavities
Empty spaces within a solid object.
Porous
The amount of empty space inside an object. A rock with a lot of air holes (like a pumice stone) is said to be highly porous. The more porous a material is, the more other substances it can absorb.
Cusp
A the point of moving to another stage.
CO2
Carbon dioxide.
Advocates
Supporters.
Decarbonise
Reduce the carbon.

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