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IEA Urges More Use Of Hydrogen — Can It Be Made From Air & Sunshine?

The IEA is encouraging G20 leaders to consider hydrogen as a way to lower carbon emissions. Researchers around the world are seeking ways to make hydrogen from sunlight and air instead of fossil fuels.

Leading up to the G20 conference in Japan this week, the International Energy Agency has released a new report that calls for a greater use of hydrogen to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions, especially in certain industries where electrification has been slow to catch on, such as ocean shipping, long-haul trucking, and the iron and steel industries. In the executive summary, the IEA report says:

Hydrogen can help tackle various critical energy challenges. It offers ways to decarbonize a range of sectors — including long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel — where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions. It can also help improve air quality and strengthen energy security. Despite very ambitious international climate goals, global energy-related CO2 emissions reached an all time high in 2018. Outdoor air pollution also remains a pressing problem, with around 3 million people dying prematurely each year.

Hydrogen is versatile. Technologies already available today enable hydrogen to produce, store, move and use energy in different ways. A wide variety of fuels are able to produce hydrogen, including renewables, nuclear, natural gas, coal and oil. It can be transported as a gas by pipelines or in liquid form by ships, much like liquefied natural gas. It can be transformed into electricity and methane to power homes and feed industry, and into fuels for cars, trucks, ships and planes.

Hydrogen can enable renewables to provide an even greater contribution. It has the potential to help with variable output from renewables, like solar photovoltaics and wind, whose availability is not always well matched with demand.

Hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing energy from renewables and looks promising to be a lowest-cost option for storing electricity over days, weeks or even months. Hydrogen and hydrogen based fuels can transport energy from renewables over long distances — from regions with abundant solar and wind resources, such as Australia or Latin America, to energy-hungry cities thousands of kilometers away.

IEA head Fatih Birol believes the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable energy could fall by 30% between now and 2030 but warns there are still technical and regulatory issues to be conquered. “The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future,” he says.

Hydrogen From Air & Sunshine

I can hear some regular CleanTechnica readers groan when the subject of hydrogen comes up. Today, much of it is made from natural gas, with all the pollution issues associated with extracting it making it anything but a clean energy option. But what if there was a way to make hydrogen without all the nasty side effects of using natural gas or other fossil fuel sources?

hydrogen from solar reactor

ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Researchers from ETH Zurich say they have found a way to make liquid hydrocarbon fuels from nothing but sunlight and air. This is not some “in the lab only” science fair project. The researchers have installed a solar mini-refinery on the roof of ETH’s Machine Laboratory building in Zurich, according to a report by Science Daily.

Using nothing but carbon dioxide and water vapor extracted from the air, the process yields syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The syngas is then  processed into kerosene, methanol or other hydrocarbons.

Professor Aldo Steinfeld of ETH Zurich says, “This plant proves that carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels can be made from sunlight and air under real field conditions. The thermochemical process utilizes the entire solar spectrum and proceeds at high temperatures, enabling fast reactions and high efficiency.”

“A solar plant spanning an area of one square kilometre could produce 20,000 litres of kerosene a day,” said Philipp Furler, Director of Synhelion and a former doctoral student in Steinfeld’s  research group. “Theoretically, a plant the size of Switzerland — or a third of the Californian Mojave Desert — could cover the kerosene needs of the entire aviation industry. Our goal for the future is to efficiently produce sustainable fuels with our technology and thereby mitigate global CO2 emissions.”

Oh, You Want Pure Hydrogen?

Okay, syngas is not pure hydrogen, but other researchers say they can make hydrogen using the energy of the sun and air. The Dutch Institute For Fundamental Energy Research says its Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy Applications group, headed by Mihalis Tsampas, had been working on a method to split water in the vapor phase instead of the liquid phase, which is much more common.

“Working with gas instead of liquid has several advantages,” Tsampas explains. “Liquids introduce some technical problems, like unwanted bubble formation. Furthermore, by using water in the gas phase instead of the liquid phase, we do not need expensive installations to purify the water. And finally, since we only use the water that is present in the surrounding air, our technology is also applicable in remote places where no water is available.”

The system consists of polymeric electrolyte membranes, porous photoelectrodes, and water-absorbing materials, combined in a specially designed membrane-integrated device. The research is being conducted in cooperation with Toyota Motors Europe.

“Pioneering the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen sedan, Toyota is also actively contributing to finding ways to produce hydrogen without the use of fossil fuels,” says Isotta Cerri, General Manager, Advanced Material Research. “This fits in with the challenges of the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, aiming for zero CO2 emissions throughout the entire life cycle of our vehicles.

“Hydrogen production based on renewable energy sources significantly helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. With this kind of fundamental research, we are working towards a hydrogen society by developing affordable and easy-to-use hydrogen applications for our operations as well as for the customer.”

The current system uses only about 5% of available sunlight. The researchers are planning to refine their techniques to boost the amount of sunlight that can be used to drive the conversion process.

Belgium Joins The Party

Scientists at KU Leuven in Belgium have developed a device that combines incoming solar energy and water vapor from the surrounding air to produce a record-breaking daily average of 250 liters (66 gal) of hydrogen throughout the year, according to New Atlas. The researchers’ estimate an array of 20 such panels paired with an underground pressurized tank could provide all the electrical and heating needs for a typical home at a modest price. What is that modest price? We don’t know.

Does Hydrogen Have A Future?

We tend to favor solar and wind energy when it comes to renewable energy, but there are alternatives. Can we afford to turn up our noses at hydrogen? Might it have a place in the clean energy mix? The answer appears to be “yes.” Just as there is a place for hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles alongside battery electrics, hydrogen very well may have an important role to play in reducing carbon emissions.

We tend to think hydrogen fuel cell cars are a non-starter (pun intended), but could fuel cells help ocean-going ships slash emissions or industry lower its carbon footprint? Absolutely. And if research can figure out how to make hydrogen from solar energy and do it affordably, we would be foolish to turn our backs on such new technology.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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