Solar and Hydrogen: The Foundation

This article is based on the following post, Solar and Hydrogen: The Foundation.


Our future oil wells. Credit: Unsplash
Our future oil wells. Credit: Unsplash

The Hydrogen Economy

The climate change world is complex and difficult to understand. There are so many factors, parameters and variables, all of which seem to affect each other in ways that we don’t understand, or that we can even identify. However, when we look at Net Zero programs, some truths seem to bubble up out of the morass of information. These truths include the following.

  • Our energy will have to come from solar power, both direct heat and electricity generated in fuel cells. Other sources of renewable energy such as wind and tidal have an important role to play. But the only energy source that can provide for all of society’s needs is solar.

  • Solar power produces mostly electricity. However, electricity provides a basis for only about 40% of our energy consumption. This is a conundrum.

  • We need liquid fuels. Electric vehicles (EVs) powered by electricity stored in batteries can be used for personal transportation. But ships, trucks and airplanes will need liquid (or high pressure gas) fuels for the foreseeable future.

  • We need chemical feedstocks to make the tens of thousands of chemical products which are foundational to our modern way of life. Solar energy is immaterial; it cannot meet this need. When combined with the carbon atoms in fossil fuels, hydrogen can provide a basis for our material economy.

  • Solar is a highly intermittent source of energy — it is dark half the time, and often overcast during the day. Therefore, we need to be able to story massive — as in massive — amounts of energy if we are to continue with our 24/7 lifestyle.

The way around these difficulties is to use solar energy to create hydrogen from water using electrolysis. The hydrogen that is manufactured can then be compressed and/or liquefied so that it can be used as a transportation fuel. (It can also be converted to ammonia in order to make it a ‘hydrogen carrier’.)

Although there are concerns to do with the safety and handling of hydrogen, it is an excellent fuel because it has a high energy density on a weight bases, and when burned it creates just water vapor — it is the ultimate clean fuel; it does not contribute to global warming.

We also have plenty of experience in manufacturing and handling hydrogen — it is already widely used in industry, and a system for transporting hydrogen exists.

An Abundant Supply

Sea water provides abundant hydrogen
A gas station of the future

Not only is hydrogen an excellent fuel, it is also a super-abundant here on earth as part of the water molecule: H2O. Indeed, hydrogen is super-abundant everywhere, it constitutes 75% of the matter in the universe.

So here we have a fuel that is:

  • Clean burning — it emits only water vapor;

  • Can meet many of the energy and material needs of industrial society;

  • Is already manufactured and transported safely in bulk;

  • Is available in limitless quantities; and

  • It can be manufactured using solar power to electrolyze water.

So why are we not moving full speed ahead toward a hydrogen economy based on the electrolysis of water and solar power?

There are many responses to this question, mostly to do with cost and protecting sunk investments. We will delve more deeply into this important topic in future posts.