The hydrogen economy - solving difficult challenges towards energy transition

The hydrogen economy - solving difficult challenges towards energy transition

June 2024

by the Energy & Sustainability teams at 42T

Sustainable energy is novel for most companies, and navigating the technical obstacles and regulatory landscape around green hydrogen will be challenging. With a supply chain gearing up to increase capacity thereby driving an increase in demand for equipment, how do OEM's solve all the issues?

Latest innovations and future landscape

The hydrogen economy is often heralded as a cornerstone of the future green energy landscape, promising to decarbonise a myriad of sectors and mitigate climate change. While the buzz around hydrogen vehicles and home heating systems captures much public attention, these applications may not be the silver bullets they are touted to be.

Hydrogen economy

Instead, green hydrogen holds the most promise for industries where electrification is not feasible. We explore the current state, innovations, and opportunities in the hydrogen economy, with a focus on the UK, US, and Europe.

Duncan Lindsay, Director of Industrial Products at 42T says, “The hydrogen economy holds transformative potential for the global energy industry, promising to reshape how energy is produced, stored, and consumed in applications that are difficult to decarbonise. But there are significant issues that need to be solved before this can happen. Partnering with technology experts to tackle these issues is the way forward.”

Misconceptions and realities

When most people think of hydrogen, they envision cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells and homes heated by hydrogen boilers. However, these applications face significant challenges. Hydrogen vehicles, for instance, struggle with the high costs of production and infrastructure compared to electric vehicles (EVs). Similarly, using hydrogen for home heating is less efficient than electric heat pumps, given the energy losses in hydrogen production and distribution.

Green hydrogen, produced using renewable energy sources like wind and solar, is a versatile energy carrier but is inherently less efficient than using green electricity directly. The process of electrolysis, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, consumes a significant amount of electricity. For applications where direct electrification is possible, such as passenger vehicles and home heating, using electricity directly is more efficient and cost-effective.

The real opportunities for green hydrogen

The true potential of green hydrogen lies in industries and applications that cannot easily switch to electricity and are hard to abate or decarbonise. In the chemical industry, this includes ammonia production, chemicals, refining, steel, and in transport industry, aviation, maritime shipping, and to some extent long-haul heavy goods vehicles.

Here’s why green hydrogen is crucial in these applications:

  1. Ammonia production: ammonia, a key component in fertilisers, currently relies heavily on natural gas. Green hydrogen can replace this, significantly reducing carbon emissions.
  2. Chemical industry: many chemical processes require hydrogen as a feedstock. Transitioning to green hydrogen can decarbonise these processes without the need for radical changes in infrastructure.
  3. Refining: this industry uses hydrogen to process crude oil into refined products, such as polymer feedstocks. Green hydrogen can substitute for the conventional hydrogen derived from fossil fuels, thus reducing the carbon footprint.
  4. Steel production: The steel industry is one of the largest industrial carbon emitters. Green hydrogen can serve as a reducing agent to produce steel, offering a cleaner alternative to coke and coal.
  5. Aviation, maritime and transport: These sectors face significant challenges in electrification due to the energy density required for long-distance travel. Green hydrogen can be converted into synthetic fuels or used in fuel cells to provide a viable low-carbon alternative.

Hydrogen economy

Furthermore, the hydrogen economy can enhance energy security by diversifying the energy supply. Hydrogen can be produced locally from a variety of resources, reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels and enhancing resilience against geopolitical and market fluctuations. This diversification is particularly valuable for countries seeking to achieve energy independence and stability while transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

Overall, the hydrogen economy offers a pathway to a more sustainable, resilient, and economically robust energy future. Its potential to integrate with renewable energy sources, decarbonize challenging sectors, and provide economic and energy security benefits positions hydrogen as a key player in the global energy transition.

The UK - leading the charge

In the UK, hydrogen innovation is thriving with numerous initiatives aimed at integrating hydrogen into the energy landscape.

One notable example is the HyNet North West project which focuses on creating a low-carbon hydrogen production and distribution network. The project aims to decarbonise industrial processes, heating, and transport in the North West of England. It includes the development of hydrogen production facilities using natural gas and carbon capture technology to minimise emissions.

Additionally, UK-based Intelligent Energy takes an innovative approach to hydrogen fuel cell technology, particularly for high-demand applications such as heavy vehicles and drones. Their lightweight, high-efficiency systems deliver exceptional power density and reliability, with US Department of Defence and China’s oldest car manufacturer, Changan, as customers.

A Scottish-led project to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered heavy goods vehicle has been awarded £30m from a government and industry initiative. The Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) fuel cell project marks a significant step towards the country's commitment to reducing carbon emissions and embracing sustainable energy solutions. Glasgow-based HVS aims to develop a ‘clean and affordable’ cab and tractor unit to replace equivalent diesel-powered vehicles currently used across the UK and Europe.

This initiative focuses on deploying hydrogen fuel cell technology in the transport sector, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles, which are traditionally challenging to decarbonize due to their high energy demands. By leveraging green hydrogen, produced through the electrolysis of water using renewable energy sources, the project aims to create a cleaner alternative to diesel fuel, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Hydrogen economy

The introduction of hydrogen fuel cell HGVs not only showcases the potential of hydrogen as a versatile energy carrier but also stimulates advancements in hydrogen infrastructure, such as refuelling stations and production facilities.

Moreover, this project could set a precedent for other regions, demonstrating the feasibility and benefits of hydrogen in heavy transport. As a result, it may catalyse further investments and innovations in green hydrogen technologies, contributing to a more sustainable and resilient energy system globally. The implications of this project extend beyond transportation, potentially influencing industrial processes, energy storage solutions, and overall energy policies aimed at fostering a cleaner environment.

The pace of change in this technological space is extremely rapid. 'Yellow goods' require ruggedisation, high uptime and high power capacity making it an application considered difficult to decarbonise.  JCB’s team of engineers developed a pioneering hydrogen fuelled internal combustion engine in just two years. This will open up decarbonising opportunities in the agriculture and construction industries.

The US - scaling up hydrogen infrastructure

In the US, significant investments and innovations are driving the hydrogen economy forward. California leads the way with its extensive hydrogen refuelling network, supporting the growth of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Companies like Nikola Corporation are developing hydrogen-powered trucks, with their Nikola Two model designed for long-haul freight, offering zero emissions and quick refuelling times.

Plug Power, based in New York, is advancing hydrogen fuel cell technology for forklifts and other material handling equipment. Their GenDrive fuel cells are already in use in warehouses operated by giants like Amazon and Walmart, showcasing the practical applications of hydrogen in reducing emissions and improving operational efficiency.

Hydrogen economy

Europe - pioneering green hydrogen

Europe is at the forefront of green hydrogen production. In Germany, the REFHYNE project, led by Shell and ITM Power, has established one of the world's largest PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) electrolysers at the Rhineland refinery. This facility produces green hydrogen using renewable energy, which is then used in refining processes and potentially for transport and heating.

Another groundbreaking initiative is the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, which aims to establish a robust hydrogen value chain across the continent. This alliance includes projects like HyDeploy in the UK, which blends hydrogen with natural gas to reduce carbon emissions from domestic heating.

In the transportation sector, companies like Alstom are revolutionizing rail travel with their hydrogen-powered Coradia iLint trains. These trains emit only water vapour and are already operational in Germany and the Netherlands, demonstrating a viable alternative to diesel-powered trains.

What role do consultants play?

As technology advances and investments grow, the hydrogen economy promises to play a crucial role in achieving global sustainability goals and reducing carbon emissions. The market for green hydrogen is forecast to experience substantial growth, with projections indicating it could reach a valuation of over $200 billion by 2030, driven by increasing demand for clean energy solutions across various sectors.

With the support of consultants, companies in the hydrogen industry can more effectively bring cutting-edge solutions to market, accelerating this transition. At 42T, we typically provide expertise in navigating regulatory landscapes, optimising production processes, and enhancing product design, all of which are essential for scaling up hydrogen technologies. And where resourcing and budgets are an issue, we can help bridge those gaps.

Consultants are also able to bring a variety of disciplines to the table from resource to electronics, mechanical and scientific, root-cause analysis, invention and thought-leadership, due diligence, IP and regulatory advice.

Where 42T can add value

  • Novel technology scale-up advice
  • Technology development skills
  • Technology de-risking and TRL improvements
  • Feasibility studies and techno-economic assessment
  • Product and process design and development

Duncan sums up: “Having worked in different parts of the hydrogen supply chain, the Energy team at 42T has solid experience that is difficult to come by in this very new industry. Sustainable energy is novel for most companies, so having access to our expert team of technologists and engineers who are well versed in heat modelling and thermofluidics, for example, is valuable. We can very often be the difference for companies in gaining competitive advantage.”

A collaborative effort in this way will be instrumental in driving the transition to a cleaner energy future, positioning green hydrogen as a cornerstone of global efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainable development.

If you would like to find out more, please contact 42T’s Duncan Lindsay:

Duncan Lindsay | +44 (0)1480 302700 | Duncan's LinkedIn

Duncan is the Director of Industrial Products. Hen has extensive engineering and commercial experience of new product and process development across a wide range of technologies and sectors. 

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