Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell cutaway

The most abundant element in the universe—hydrogen—has been attracting less attention than it deserves on the clean energy stage, with batteries of all sorts stealing the spotlight. This may be about to change as big energy companies start investing heavily in hydrogen-based energy storage solutions, at least according to industry experts that Bloomberg’s Anna Hirtenstein spoke to.

 

Hydrogen can be used for the storage of energy through hydrolysis, a process that breaks down water into its constituent elements. The hydrogen resulting from this process is then stored in caverns or tanks until the time comes when it needs to be converted back into electricity in gas-powered plants, for instance, or in fuel cells for vehicles.

Theoretically, proponents of hydrogen energy storage argue it would be a superior alternative to batteries, since the latter need discharging and recharging, and they don’t have very long productive lives. Hydrogen, on the other hand, does not need recharging. It can stay in the cavern for weeks and months, and only when the need arises is it whisked through pipelines to a power plant or a chemical plant, or even an oil refinery.

The theory is great, but there is a reason why hydrogen storage has not yet had its time in the spotlight: it has not been commercially tested, possibly because of issues with the cost of the technology and its efficiency. Appropriate storage can also be a problem because of hydrogen’s high energy-per-mass unit density but low energy-per-volume density, which requires special holding features for storage facilities, beginning with spaciousness.

 

The Energy Storage Association, for example, notes in an overview of hydrogen storage tech that the efficiency of the whole electricity-hydrogen-electricity process is only about 30-40 percent. On the flipside, hydrogen’s energy storage capacity is much higher than that of batteries, and if new technologies are pursued, efficiency could rise to 50 percent.

The pursuit of these technologies requires funding, which is where the Hydrogen Council comes in. The trade group formed earlier this year involves 17 companies including Shell, Total, and a number of major car makers looking for ways to find a commercially viable application of hydrogen in clean energy systems.

To this end, the Council plans to spend more than US$1.4 billion (1.2 billion euro) on R&D and market introduction and deployment of hydrogen systems between 2018 and 2020, including both storage and fuel cells for vehicles. This may not sound like a lot, but compared to a total investment of US$2.5 billion in hydrogen systems for the last decade, it is certainly a marked improvement.

There are five hydrogen storage projects in progress in Europe, with their capacity ranging from 0.7 MW to 2 MW. In the U.S., the National Renewable Energy laboratory is among those also working in a solution in this area. The Wind-to-Hydrogen project, developed in partnership with Xcel Energy, features both wind turbines and PV panels that produce electricity, part of which is used to electrolyze water to make hydrogen. Most of this hydrogen is then stored and the remainder is used for vehicle fuel cells at the hydrogen fueling station of the National Wind Technology Center, which houses the project.

Despite challenges in the cost and efficiency departments, we will probably see more hydrogen storage projects start popping up in the coming years because of all the benefits they can potentially offer: emission-free power that can also double as car fuel and raw material in a range of industrial production applications. In fact, the secretary of the Hydrogen Council, Air Liquide’s VP of advanced business and technologies Pierre-Etienne Franc, says that “The years 2020 to 2030 will be for hydrogen what the 1990s were for solar and wind.”