Hydrogen: net-zero ‘silver bullet’ or expensive ‘white elephant’? 


The shifting energy landscape during the past 12 months has seen many governments firmly place hydrogen at the heart of their energy transition strategies, with some touting it as a ‘silver bullet’. According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2021 hydrogen review, 17 governments have released hydrogen strategies, more than 20 governments have publicly announced they are working to develop strategies, and numerous companies are seeking to tap into hydrogen business opportunities. 

Such efforts, they argue, are timely: hydrogen will be needed for an energy system with net zero emissions. In the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, hydrogen use extends to several parts of the energy sector and grows sixfold from today’s levels to meet 10 per cent of total final energy consumption by 2050. This is all supplied from low-carbon sources.   

However, Caragh McWhirr, head of hydrogen strategy at Xodus, says that using hydrogen as an alternative fuel source cannot be considered in black and white terms. Hydrogen may be the most common element in the universe, and is already widely used in some industries, but it is not yet a readily available resource and has yet to realise its potential to support the energy transition.  

“What we are seeing now is plans for hydrogen to be deployed for transportation purposes, particularly within the shipping industry, or for use in large fleet-type vehicles such as trucks or lorries,” explains McWhirr. “As carbon abatement continues to become an increasing priority throughout all industries, having zero- or low-carbon transport fleets will be a crucial element if we are to decarbonise the entire supply chain.” 

Decarbonising transportation with hydrogen 

Jim Gregory, European business development manager at Luxfer Gas Cylinders, argues that decarbonising the transport sector, one of the highest-polluting sectors in the global economy, has never been more important.  

One solution for hydrogen-fuelled systems is via an adapted combustion engine – popular because it is more cost effective to apply old technology to work with a new fuel. Conversions are particularly relevant for buses, boats, light trucks and vans, as well as for rail, where the capability to retrofit existing rolling stock is key. For example, with many thousands of diesel trains purchased in Europe in the past decade, operators are reluctant to write off an investment that has a much-reduced lifespan due to the mandate to rid the network of diesel by 2040. 

 “The role of SMEs to support scalability for this green fuel should not be underestimated,” asserts Gregory. “Thanks to being agile, they are a driving force for conversions of battery electric and diesel engines to hydrogen. The offer of hydrogen-powered trucks, boats or trains from the major OEMs that can be purchased off the shelf is not expected to expand for a couple of years. Yet an SME, which is less likely to have the capital to create a hydrogen vehicle from scratch, can get a conversion project live within months. 

“Where conversions matter most is that small fleets allow the infrastructure to stabilise and adapt, as demand incrementally grows. Overwhelming the hydrogen supply in its infancy could knock confidence and impact investment. Disruptive SMEs commissioned for retrofits means a steady ramp up in production with operators supporting the supply chain and learning how to manage a hydrogen-powered fleet.” 

According to Gregory, initial demand for alternative fuel systems was primarily for public transport, road freight and some automotive design. But since 2020, the range of applications has expanded significantly across other transport modes including boats, forklift trucks, off-highway vehicles and aerospace. There will soon be a hydrogen version of almost every kind of transport. 

Of course, there remain barriers to companies wanting to make the swap – particularly when it comes to availability and infrastructure. For Gregory, however, the exciting thing is that there is much more to come as governments, investors and businesses work together to boost the hydrogen ecosystem.  

“The UK Energy strategy, for example, aims to double production capacity for hydrogen to ten GW by 2030, which is great news. We believe that with this hurdle removed over the coming years, adoption of hydrogen-fuelled technology will expand significantly.” 

A train powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The cost of hydrogen production 

Despite the benefits associated with transitioning from natural gas to hydrogen, and a clear willingness from global policymakers to scale up its production, hydrogen usage and production is still largely in its infancy. From McWhirr’s perspective, there is one main factor causing this blockade in the path of ramping up hydrogen production for wide-scale deployment.  

“Producing hydrogen, particularly from low-carbon energy, is currently costly. Because hydrogen must be derived from inputs such as gas or electricity, its cost will fluctuate alongside the market price of its primary product.” 

Matt Browell-Hook, energy director at Costain, also points out that there are further challenges in the form of understanding where our future hydrogen supply is going to come from. The process of manufacturing large volumes of hydrogen is well understood through gasification, steam methane reforming (SMR) or electrolysis. However, of the predominant generation techniques available, the majority rely on the use of fossil fuels: SMR uses natural gas as a feedstock, and electrolysis is powered by electricity which is often produced by burning fossil fuels. 

Globally, the total volume of green, or renewable hydrogen production is around 0.02% of the total volume. This means that, whilst the use of hydrogen can rightly be seen as the practical solution moving forwards, we need to recognise the need for investment in technology, skills and projects to address the requirement to both drastically grow the hydrogen generation industry and eliminate the dependency on fossil fuels in the process over the next 20 years or so.” 

Challenges in scaling hydrogen production to meet demand 

Beyond this, there are the costs of establishing the necessary infrastructure for storing and transporting hydrogen. “We are starting to witness the rollout of refuelling stations, though this is primarily maintaining a hub-type approach, with some regions targeted ahead of others,” comments McWhirr. “If we are to scale up the infrastructure and technology necessary to store and transport hydrogen for mainstream usage, it will require huge financial investment.” 

As a low-density gas, storing enough hydrogen to supply the UK’s energy needs for three days, for example, would require huge volumes, immense pressure or extremely cold temperatures. This is not only a barrier in terms of efficiency of space, but also safety, as highly pressurised and cold conditions can become extremely dangerous working environments. 

Professor Martin Owen Jones, energy materials co-ordinator at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, argues that ammonia storage is our best bet at making the hydrogen economy a reality, as it can be used as a new form of hydrogen storage, helping to overcome hurdles around production, safe and efficient storage, infrastructure, and transportation. 

“As shown by feasibility studies conducted at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, ammonia can be produced sustainably by combining nitrogen from liquefied air with renewable electricity and hydrogen from hydrolysed water,” explains Jones. “When burned, ammonia can produce heat to power electricity-generating turbines, as well as nitrogen and water, and it is predicted ammonia could save over 40 million tonnes of CO2 each year in Europe alone, or over 360 million tonnes worldwide. 

“As ammonia is already one of the most transported bulk chemicals worldwide for use in agriculture, developing further infrastructure for its use as an energy source would be much more straightforward than that of hydrogen.” 

Ammonia storage has already proven successful for industry, where ammonia-based turbines are used for distributed power for off-grid areas. Here, sustainable wind is used to generate ammonia, converting electrical energy to chemical energy, which can be combusted in the turbine when wind is not blowing to maintain electricity generation.  

“Ammonia needs to be considered for our broader energy infrastructure if we are to draw on hydrogen to reach net zero effectively,” concludes Jones. “While ammonia itself has several challenges to overcome to become the preferred choice by industry, these are much more likely to be solved in the shorter-term.” 

Others are exploring alternative solutions. For Gregory, bulk gas transportation will be critical in getting hydrogen from the production site to the point of use, in a safe and cost-efficient way. To that end, Luxfer has joined forces with Octopus Hydrogen – a subsidiary of green energy tech company Octopus Energy – in a multi-million-pound collaboration, designing and supplying bulk gas transport modules to carry 1.1 tonnes of hydrogen across the UK. 

Additionally, marine solutions are also a growing market, as ports make strides to clean up the waterways, and bulk gas transport projects are targeting ways to deliver hydrogen without adding to already-congested road networks. 

Hydrogen’s role in the future energy mix 

“As we continue to learn more and develop our technology surrounding hydrogen, I have little doubt we will be able to engineer solutions around the risks associated with this new alternative fuel source,” says McWhirr. “The real challenge lies within the image of hydrogen. From a commercial point of view, it is a harder sell to the everyday homeowner as an energy source than natural gas, due to its safety issues. Even if large sums are invested into scaling up hydrogen production for use within gas networks, stakeholder management will inevitably be the biggest obstacle in hydrogen’s transition into mainstream usage.” 

“There is continued talk and debate around how hydrogen can be part of the domestic heating solution, and whether hydrogen boilers can replace gas boilers,” says Amna Bezanty, strategy lead at KEW Technology. “This revolves around the repurposing of existing infrastructure, but it comes up against the conventional thinking that the majority of UK heating in the future will be provided through electrification or heat pumps. This poses the question: will people simply replace a gas boiler with a hydrogen boiler? Or will further alternatives be pursued?” 

For Bezanty, this highlights the need to define the role that hydrogen plays in UK and international solutions for decarbonisation, recognising it will be different responses for different geographical infrastructure. 

“The debate rolls on as to whether it is just going to be a generation fuel. By addressing this, it allows for focus to be placed on where the sector should focus and grow accordingly. We understand how to generate hydrogen: the question that needs to be answered is how is the going to be applied in a low-carbon energy system?” 

Given the myriad, fundamental challenges that must be addressed over the next decade associated with hydrogen, particularly the vulnerability of its cost, McWhirr concludes that it is too early to deem the fuel source as a ‘silver bullet’.  

“As we continue to innovate low-carbon solutions, hydrogen will inevitably dominate an increasing number of markets, but it is unrealistic to expect it to fit all our energy needs. Hydrogen certainly has its place within the future energy mix but it cannot be the only answer to solving all our problems.” 

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