By 2050, it’s hoped that we’ll almost be at a point of global carbon net neutrality. To understand the role hydrogen fuel could play, let’s take a look at its history, current applications, and potential future uses.
A Brief History of Hydrogen Fuel
The earliest example we have of a hydrogen fuel cell comes from 1839, when Welsh inventor, Sir William Robert Grove, developed the Grove Cell. It wasn’t until the 1920s that fuel cell research led to solid oxide fuels and power output levels that could be considered usable.
Building on previous research, English engineer Francis T Bacon expanded on the concept of the hydrogen fuel cell. His eventual design, the Bacon Cell, was perfected in 1959; its foundational principles led to the development of fuel cells used by NASA in its rockets.
Unsurprisingly, it was NASA’s involvement that led to hydrogen fuel cells becoming a viable commercial resource. Since the 1960s, it has funded more than 200 research contracts, which have gradually led to smaller, more efficient hydrogen fuel cells that can fit in cars, planes, and other vehicles.
The 21st century has led to a major boom in hydrogen fuel cell research and rollout. In 2004, the German navy tested a hydrogen-powered submarine, and China tested the world’s first hydrogen-powered train in 2015. There are currently two hydrogen cars in commercial production: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo.
The Developments and Challenges of Hydrogen Fuel
We’ve discussed current hydrogen fuel projects in our article on the applications of hydrogen fuel, so check that out for a more in-depth discussion. Although current projects imply hydrogen fuel could be the most viable replacement for fossil fuels, it’s currently limited by numerous challenges.
First, there’s storage. Hydrogen has a low energy content by volume, meaning fuel cells need a lot of it to be worthwhile. In turn, this means storing hydrogen under pressure or at low temperatures to make it compact enough. Because its energy density is lower than gasoline, vehicles will need larger tanks to store enough for competitive range. While this might not be a major issue in cars, it presents a noticeable challenge for aircraft.
Second, there’s the challenge of production. Currently, the cheapest hydrogen production methods are grey, brown and black hydrogen. These rely on fossil fuels to generate power, meaning they’re arguably not much better than just using gasoline in a vehicle.
We have methods for sustainable hydrogen production, but these are comparatively expensive. Green hydrogen uses renewable energy to electrolyse water, but as the production method becomes more widely available, prices will inevitably drop.
A fair compromise is blue hydrogen, which uses natural gas to power steam reforming. However, natural gas is offset against carbon-capturing methods, so while not the best-case scenario, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
The Future of Hydrogen Fuel
These challenges are fairly standard teething problems found in the commercialisation of any new technology. Over time, production cost and energy efficiency will improve, making hydrogen a competitive option. Hopefully, by 2050, we’ll have reached a point where we don’t need to think twice about the origins of our fuel.