What is Hydrogen Energy?
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Written By: Lauren Rosenthal
Edited By: Vanessa Lu Langley
"The Japanese government currently subsidizes 135 refuelling stations for hydrogen-powered vehicles, the highest amount of any country"
Hydrogen energy currently has tremendous momentum in the energy world. It is fundamentally different from other major sources of energy in that it is not a primary energy source, where the energy can be directly harvested from nature, but an energy carrier. Because it is always bound to other elements, hydrogen must first be separated out before its energy can be harnessed (Edwards et al., 2007). Pure hydrogen can then be placed in a fuel cell with oxygen, and their reaction produces electricity in the form of heat as well as water (The Economist, 2021). Although still in its relative infancy compared to other types of energy, international investment in hydrogen is trending upwards, as it is increasingly being recognized as a promising, potentially green source.
Several countries have begun taking steps towards incorporating hydrogen into their energy systems. Japan is the leader in this regard; the Japanese government currently subsidizes 135 refueling stations for hydrogen-powered vehicles, the highest amount of any country (Denyer, 2021), and invested over 70 billion yen ($617 284 500 USD) into the industry in the 2020 fiscal year (Okutsu & Shibata, 2021). Other places are following suit: the United States, for instance, recently announced that it is set to invest $20 million into hydrogen energy produced through nuclear power, a green production method (Department of Energy, 2021).
Hydrogen’s environmental impacts depend entirely on the type of energy used to produce it. Currently, 95% of hydrogen energy is produced via the transformation of natural gas, which produces greenhouse gases (Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy). However, it can also be produced without fossil fuels through the splitting of water (H2O) via the process of electrolysis, which can be powered by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, or hydro. Research into other production methods, such as the use of microbes and biomass conversion, is also underway (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2021). Because the only byproduct of electricity produced via hydrogen fuel cells is water, hydrogen has the potential to be a 100% green energy source.
Presently, hydrogen energy use is limited to refinery processes and the production of chemicals and petrochemicals (Rosen & Koohi-Fayegh, 2016), but it is likely soon to play a major role in long-term transportation, serving as fuel, and in heavy industry as a supplement to electricity (The Economist, 2021). There are still some challenges that need to be addressed, mainly related to storage and the cost-effectiveness of renewable energy production, but these can be overcome with advances in research and engineering (Rosen & Koohi-Fayegh, 2016). Overall, hydrogen has tremendous potential to fulfil our demands for clean energy in the near future.
Denyer, S. (2021). Japan bets on hydrogen to lift its ambitious carbon-neutral plans. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 10th, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/japan-hydrogen-energy-carbon/2021/04/13/0dd68e4e-9229-11eb-aadc-af78701a30ca_story.html
Department of Energy. (2021). DOE Announces $20 Million to Produce Clean Hydrogen From Nuclear Power. Energy.gov. Retrieved October 10th, from https://www.energy.gov/articles/doe-announces-20-million-produce-clean-hydrogen-nuclear-power?fbclid=IwAR31ReFAyy4sKtxRvSTOFkPi6Ha4ymPlkkUJlUeA4IKC4sMOicMPt-gD2fA
Edwards, P. P., Kuznetsov, V. L., & David, W. I. F. (2007). Hydrogen Energy. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 365, 1043–1056. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2006.1965
The Economist. (2021, August 25). Hydrogen: fuel of the future? | The Economist [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkX-H24Chfw
Rosen, M.A., Koohi-Fayegh, S. (2016). The prospects for hydrogen as an energy carrier: an overview of hydrogen energy and hydrogen energy systems. Energ. Ecol. Environ, 1(1), 10–29. doi: 10.1007/s40974-016-0005-z
Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (n.d.). Hydrogen Fuel Basics. Energy.Gov. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-fuel-basics
Okutsu, A. & Shibata, N. (2020). Be water: Japan's big, lonely bet on hydrogen. Nikkei Asia. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Big-Story/Be-water-Japan-s-big-lonely-bet-on-hydrogen
U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2021, January 7). Hydrogen Explained. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/production-of-hydrogen.php