If you’ve been reading or listening to the news recently, you’ve probably heard stories about hydrogen. But what is it? Why is it important? And why are so many people talking about it?
In this blog we’ll give you the rundown of all you need to know about hydrogen.
Is hydrogen a big opportunity for Australia?
Hydrogen is a huge opportunity for Australia. We have all of the right ingredients - some of the world’s best renewable resources, particularly wind and solar, abundant land, a skilled workforce, strong R&D capabilities and well established trading relationships with countries like Japan and South Korea interested in hydrogen. We also have a National Hydrogen Strategy that has created a lot of government and industry interest in hydrogen and a range of new programs in almost every state and territory.
Experts project that hydrogen could become a $700billion a year global industry. Experts also calculate that Australia can make some of the cheapest renewable hydrogen in the world.
WWF are working to ensure Australia captures this huge renewable hydrogen opportunity. Check out our new report and our hydrogen stimulus proposal.
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the smallest molecule in the universe and is the most common chemical element. While not naturally occurring on its own on Earth, it can be produced as a gas (H2). It is a fundamental part of water (H2O), chemicals like ammonia (NH4) that are used to make fertilizers, methane gas (CH4) which we currently use to cook with, proteins that make up our body and much more.
When found in its purest form (H2), it can be burnt or used in a fuel cell to generate electricity or power ships and trucks. When hydrogen is used in these processes it burns cleanly generating water. Compare this to fossil fuels like coal,oil and gas, which when burnt produce carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas that is the main cause of climate change.
Why are people talking about hydrogen?
As the world moves to act on climate change, companies and countries are looking for clean alternatives to fossil fuels across the whole of society from powering our homes, to producing our food, to transporting ourselves and the things we need to live our lives. In our electricity sector it is now cheaper to build a solar or wind farm, backed-up by storage than it is a coal power station. The good news is that renewables are not just powering our homes and our businesses they are starting to power our cars and trucks too.
Many processes like driving cars, cooking our food that were traditionally powered by gas and oil can now be powered by electricity - think electric vehicles and a good quality induction electric stove. That means these processes when powered by renewable electricity like solar, wind and storage don’t produce any carbon emissions.
However, there are some processes that can’t be electrified and other solutions are needed. That’s where hydrogen comes in, hydrogen when made from renewable sources, is a zero emission fuel and chemical feedstock that can replace gas and oil. That means hydrogen could grow to be an industry is almost as big as the current oil industry - and that’s huge!
What is hydrogen used for now?
While there is a lot of new hype about hydrogen, most people don’t know that hydrogen is already a big global industry. In fact, it is so big it accounts for ~1% of carbon pollution (almost as much as Australia). Hydrogen is currently used as a critical ingredient in the global chemical industry. It's used to refine oil, make explosives and make fertilizer.
How is hydrogen made?
There are three ways to make hydrogen:
- From coal
- From gas
- From electricity
Globally, 99% of the hydrogen made is currently produced from coal and gas. Both these processes generate greenhouse gas emissions. So while hydrogen may burn clean, the way it's currently made is polluting.
However, the third way, making hydrogen from renewable electricity is clean - generating zero carbon pollution. Renewable hydrogen is produced when renewable electricity powers an electrolyser, which splits water molecules into its constituent parts – hydrogen and oxygen.
What are all these colours I hear about in relation to hydrogen?
You can’t go far in the hydrogen debate before you come across a rainbow of colours - green, blue, brown, grey hydrogen. All of them refer to slightly different ways of making hydrogen, for example whether carbon capture and storage has been applied to the gas or coal hydrogen process - that gives it a different colour to without carbon capture and storage.
However, we at WWF find it all pretty confusing, when really it's pretty simple. The question to ask - is the hydrogen made from renewable electricity or is it made from coal and gas?
If hydrogen is made with renewable electricity (green hydrogen) it's a zero emissions technology, a climate solution and involves a technology (electrolysers) that over the
next decade will rapidly come down the cost curve like solar, wind and batteries have, making it affordable.
If hydrogen is made or proposed to be made with coal and gas (all the other colours), it will continue to create demand for fossil fuels, which are the biggest cause of climate change.
What could hydrogen be used for in the future?
There is a lot of talk about what hydrogen could be used for - everything from cooking our food, to powering our cars, to generating electricity. WWF-Australia’s view is that in places like Australia where we have no shortage of renewable electricity, hydrogen should be used for those processes that can’t easily be powered directly with renewable electricity.
Why? Because renewable electricity is much more efficient to produce than renewable hydrogen and thus more likely to be cost effective. For example an electric car will be much cheaper to run than a hydrogen car. An induction electric stove (which are actually good to cook with, not like those old electric stoves) will be much more affordable than a hydrogen stove.
However, there are many processes that can’t be easily electrified, where renewable hydrogen has a huge role to play. These include:
- Decarbonising the existing uses of hydrogen in the chemical industry
- Heavy vehicle transport, particularly trucks
- Making green building materials such as steel aluminium and cement
- As a zero emissions fuel for the global shipping industry (probably in the form of ammonia not hydrogen directly)
- Exporting to other countries, where they don’t have the same abundant land and renewable resources as Australia, places like Singapore and Japan.
What’s happening around the world on hydrogen?
Interest in hydrogen has really taken off in the last few years and particularly in 2020, with new project and policies being announced around the world almost weekly.
Check out our infographic that maps the global momentum on renewable hydrogen.