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Hydrogen, the dream fuel

Before the 1800’s it was not uncommon for the Thames to freeze over for two months. The four highest temperatures recorded on planet Earth have all occurred since 2015. Kids born near Lake Tahoe today will likely never ski there and the iconic Dutch skating race along the traditional canals for 200 kilometres and through 11 cities was last held in 1997.

Whilst Donald Trump attempted to claim it was ‘false news’, global warming is here to stay for some time to come and is now widely accepted as one of the planet’s biggest threats. The cause is simple. We burn fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) to produce energy which is essential to our modern lifestyle and the by product is CO2 which pops up into our atmosphere and sits there like a fluffy blanket keeping the heat in. We unquestionably need to reduce the planet’s CO2 footprint, or it will continue overheating.

Hydrogen is the dream fuel. You can heat your home with it. You can drive your car on it. Burn it and all it produces is energy and the only by product is water. We can all live with that.

Even better, hydrogen can be made from just water and green electricity produced from windmills, hydroelectric and solar cells. From cradle to grave and zero carbon. Simply put, water molecules are subjected to a high current in an electric cell (called an electrolyser) and the hydrogen part splits off from the oxygen. The oxygen can be released harmlessly or captured and sold, and we are left with the perfect fuel, hydrogen. And indeed, this has been given the term ‘green hydrogen’ because it is zero carbon.

There is an alternative way to make hydrogen which is cheaper and very well understood but produces CO2 as a byproduct. This process starts with natural gas and releases the precious hydrogen, but the CO2 that it also produces needs to be captured and reinjected back into the gas field where the natural gas comes from, thereby trapping it so it can’t float up into the atmosphere. Carbon capture and reinjection is still emerging technology and not practiced on a big scale today. It looks manageable though and we have promising results from the work we’re doing right now.

Most people today are familiar with the electric car. Legislation is leaning in this direction for urban centres. There are no exhaust fumes, so no carbon and the vehicles are becoming more accessible. But on a longer journey, the long charging time becomes an issue, together with the often misquoted ‘range’ which can be very restrictive.

There is a bigger issue for heavy transport. If electrified, a big truck needs to cart around seven tonnes of battery and it cannot afford to hang around recharging, so this will never work. The same is true for buses. Hydrogen offers an attractive alternative.

Firstly, a hydrogen engine (known as a fuel cell) is the same size as a normal engine and, secondly, the time taken to fuel up is the same as a normal engine. So, no waiting around and no range issues. In the home, a gas boiler could be replaced by a hydrogen boiler. You would hardly notice.

So, what does it take to make the hydrogen economy work? For it to be practical and effective.

Three things. One, it needs the engines/boilers. Two, it needs industry to make the hydrogen and three, it needs hydrogen infrastructure in the form of filling stations and underground pipes like we have for natural gas.

Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes etc. have many demonstration hydrogen engines happily driving around. We will have a hydrogen INEOS Grenadier on test next year (alongside an electric version). This piece of the jigsaw is the most advanced. The infrastructure, clearly critical, needs government push on legislation and investment. The German government is well advanced with nine billion Euros committed and over 200 filling stations operational. The UK government has yet to get out of the blocks but hopefully soon will. The UK has only a handful of hydrogen pumps today.

Finally, industry needs to invest in plants to produce hydrogen. INEOS is Europe’s largest operator of the electrolysis process and we have committed to €2 billion of investment in the next ten years, building the much-needed green hydrogen capacity.

The world has committed to hugely reducing its carbon emissions and hydrogen is unquestionably going to play a large part in accomplishing this goal.

Jim Ratcliffe, Chairman and Founder of INEOS

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