Hydrogen should cover our energy needs in the first half of the 21st century. It is in competition with other energy sources.
In the transport sector, the battle between electric vehicles (EV’s) and hydrogen-powered cars has now reached fever pitch.
1. Many energy experts predict that hydrogen will cover our energy needs in the future. The reason is that the hydrogen economy represents a major leap for 21st century industrial society.
In recent years, Western governments have tried to find energy solutions that are both renewable and abundant. These energy solutions should cover the growing energy demand in industry and trade. However, the search for new energy solutions has not been very successful so far. Why? This is mainly due to the EROI (Energy-Return-on-Energy-Invested). The energy yield resulting from the EROI is not sufficient for photovoltaic and wind energy. The EROI for some forms of renewable energy like sun and wind is lower than the energy yield for conventional distillates from medium crude oils. This makes some renewable energies uncompetitive in the short to medium term. One way to get around this problem in the short term is to subsidize renewables.
Hydrogen fuel production is based on other forms of energy. What we need is an abundant form of energy to produce hydrogen. This is where it gets tricky. Because we still need more energy to produce hydrogen than we produce from it.
Oil and natural gas, especially crude oil, have many advantages. One advantage is that they are easily accessible. Hydrocarbons are easily accessible without further technical steps. What does that mean? Hydrocarbons can be used in their natural liquid form. In other words: Hydrocarbons are concentrated solar energy. They are a kind of energy storage medium that has been enriched in concentrated form over many millions of years.
At the same time, these hydrocarbon fuels can be transported to another place with little effort. Natural gas can be liquefied with complex technology, but is less suitable for transport than petroleum. Hydrogen, on the other hand, is very difficult to transport. On the other hand, automotive developments look promising: According to the latest findings, hydrogen-powered vehicles are safer in use than diesel engines. In an emergency the hydrogen evaporates. However, the fuel remains in the tank and poses a risk when rescuing people.
2. Handling hydrogen causes many problems in the transport sector. There are many obstacles that have to be overcome in automotive engineering and manufacturing. In order to avoid failures, new processes in automotive engineering and the development of a completely new hydrogen-based infrastructure must be introduced.
The transport of hydrogen is particularly problematic. Hydrogen evaporates through tiny openings. To avoid this problem, the entire transport sector would have to be redesigned and adapted to the new hydrogen economy. It remains to be seen to what extent car manufacturers can be driven in this direction. In the short term hydrogen will certainly not be able to replace fossil fuels. It is also unlikely that biofuels can replace fossil fuels in the medium term.
3. When will hydrogen-powered vehicles replace conventional diesel engines?
At present, the energy industry and the automotive industry are concentrating on the production of battery-powered vehicles. There are of course developments in hydrogen technology. This may completely ignore the future of a hydrogen-powered economy. This is not to say that battery-powered vehicles will not be used. But it may be that in the future not everything will revolve around battery-powered cars.
Despite all technical and process-related developments, these still represent a very expensive transport solution for a very small customer segment. This is about some customers with a larger budget who can afford electric cars. However, this does not yet mean that electric vehicles will prevail in the mass market. The quality of rare earths and metal ores has dramatically decreased worldwide in the last 10 or 20 years. These metals are needed for the industrial production of electric cars. However, these metals are not available in abundance.
Instead, different transport solutions will be offered for different customer segments. This means that different transport solutions will exist side by side.
4. Conclusion: The future of hydrogen in the energy industry
The geology of our planet plays an important role. The availability of rare earths and metals is a core problem. These metals are used in battery production. However, rare metals such as cobalt are only mined in certain regions of our planet. We have to recognize that supply chains are scattered all over the world. At the same time, the supply chains are not particularly environmentally friendly. It will be difficult to get battery-powered vehicles to customers quickly and at the desired price. Cheaper solutions will almost be a necessity for this to work.
Even if we can establish a hydrogen economy, hydrogen transport will be difficult in the medium term. It is expected that diesel-powered vehicles will continue to be the preferred means of transport for the masses. Everything has its price.