Hydrogen – the Fuel of the Future?

Hydrogen – the Fuel of the Future?


I think we can all agree: …
…the sooner we decrease
our reliance on fossil fuels,…
…and develop new energy sources, the better.
Whether you believe in climate change or not,…
…the benefits extend beyond just the reduction
in greenhouse gas emissions,…
…and the supply of oil and gas will inevitably dry.
Tesla pioneered our greatest hope
in this space to date,…
…with the development and popularization
of battery technology.
But, as we’ve seen,
they are struggling to meet…
…the enormous half a million pre-orders
for the Model 3.
Elon Musk’s self-proclaimed production hell
has resulted in delay after delay.
Bloomberg estimates that Tesla have produced
around 12,000 Model 3s to date,…
…with the current production rate
of 1,000 per week,…
…which will gradually grow
to a target output of 5,000 per week.
But those at the tail end of the pre-order line
could be waiting until 2020 to get their Model 3.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Last year, 72 million passenger cars were built.
That’s nearly 1.4 million vehicles a week.
No matter how successful
the Internet wants Tesla to become,…
…they will never solve this issue alone,…
…and the industry as a whole…
…likely won’t be able to solve it
with a battery-only approach.
The demand for lithium-ion battery technology…
…is simply growing faster
than the supply of lithium can satisfy.
So, it seems clear: …
…we need a multi-faceted approach
to solve this problem.
Another solution, which was the industry favorite
to take over from fossil fuels, not so long ago,…
…is hydrogen fuel technology,…
…and companies like Toyota and Shell
are working to develop this industry.
It won’t be an easy race.
But hydrogen may well prove to be
the tortoise that beats the hare.
Hydrogen has three primary obstacles
it needs to overcome…
…to become a viable energy source
for any industry.
Safety, infrastructure, and cost.
Let’s get the big elephant in the room
out of the way first.
I know it’s on your mind.
If hydrogen fuel cells are ever going
to make it to public roads at scale,…
…the hydrogen needs not only to be safe,…
…but to be perceived as safe.
And yes, filling a gigantic, incredibly flammable balloon with hydrogen is a pretty bad idea.
Hydrogen has
a relatively low ignition temperature,…
…and a very wide ignition range
for air to fuel mixture percentages.
The fact that it’s pressurized
makes explosions a worry,…
…but it has one massive advantage
over oil-derived fuels.
It’s lighter than air: it can be purged
using emergency valves in the event of a fire,…
…and if it does ignite,
it won’t pool around the vehicle,…
…engulfing it and its passengers in flames.
Toyota even tested their carbon fiber tank
by shooting it with a .50 caliber round.
The tank didn’t explode.
It simply let the lighter-than-air gas
to escape and vent to the atmosphere.
Hydrogen is arguably safer than gasoline,…
…so safety isn’t a huge concern for hydrogen.
But the lack of infrastructure is.
Battery-operated vehicles
have had a huge head start in this space: …
…the electric grid is a pre-built
transportation and generation network…
…for the fuel
the battery-operated vehicles require,…
and installing a charger in your driveway
or garage isn’t a huge challenge.
Hydrogen doesn’t have such luxuries
to kick-start the hydrogen economy.
There are a few large scale
production facilities in the world,…
…with the largest being
Shell’s Rhineland oil refinement facility.
It uses its own hydrogen production
in the oil refinement process,…
…but the lessons learned from these efforts
have allowed Shell and its partner, ITM,…
…to make hydrogen a viable option
for uses in energy storage.
Last month, I was invited to London,…
…to witness the opening
of the UK’s first ever hydrogen fuel pump…
…to be included
under a fuel station canopy,…
…a pivotal step
in making the public see hydrogen…
…as an integral part
of the transport ecosystem.
What fascinated me about this site was,
how the hydrogen got there?
Transporting hydrogen in pressurized trucks
would be too expensive,…
…as there are no large-scale
production facilities nearby,…
…and although hydrogen can be transported…
…within the already established
natural gas pipelines around the world,…
…for use in vehicles,
we need pure hydrogen.
So Shell and ITM took
the next logical step to keep cost down: …
…they built a hydrogen production
and storage facility on site.
The production facility is placed
just behind the main station,…
…and is capable of producing
80 kilograms of hydrogen a day.
The Toyota Mirai on sight
has a range of 480 kilometers…
…with a full 5 kilogram tank of hydrogen.
Vastly more than a full charge for a Tesla,…
…but you must consider
the huge upfront cost of batteries,…
…which do not last forever,
in this equation for cost.
I’ll explore this battery vs hydrogen dilemma
more in a future video.
But for now, let’s see how hydrogen actually works.
The production process
of hydrogen is pretty simple.
It uses a process called electrolysis
to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.
The electrolyzer consists
of two metal-coated electrodes…
…and a DC power source,…
…which provides a negative and positive charge.
Hydrogen will appear at the cathode,
the negative electrode,…
…where electrons react with the water
to form hydrogen and hydroxide ions.
These negative ions now present in the water
are attracted to the anode or positive electrode,…
…where they are oxidized
to form oxygen and water.
The rate of production of oxygen and hydrogen
depends on the electric current.
But pure water is not very conductive.
To achieve adequate hydrogen production,…
…we would need to increase the voltage,
or increase the conductivity.
It’s much more efficient to increase conductivity,…
…so an electrolyte, in the form of salt,
is often included as a charge carrier.
This is the oldest and most well-established
production method for hydrogen.
For reasons I won’t go into, but will include
reading material in the description,…
…this method isn’t suitable
for quick response times,…
…with slow starter procedures
and safety concerns,…
…making it completely unsuitable
for variable renewable energy sources,…
…which has historically
made hydrogen prohibitively expensive.
If hydrogen has any hope
of becoming a popular fuel source,…
…we first need to get its price down,
to be competitive with batteries and fossil fuels.
This has been a major point of research
for the past 50 years,…
…and PEM, or Proton Exchange Membranes,…
…are the primary solution now coming to market, that are facilitating a realistic hydrogen economy.
PEM replaces the electrolyte rich water
for a solid polymer electrolyte membrane,…
…sandwiched between the anode and cathode,…
…with channels to allow water and gas
and solution to flow through.
As its name suggests,
the PEM only allows protons to pass through.
So hydrogen ions, otherwise known as protons,…
…now become the charge carriers,
rather than the hydroxide ions.
But the overall chemical reaction
is exactly the same,…
…while requiring less voltage
to operate efficiently,…
…and, more importantly,
has a rapid response time,…
…making it ideal for integration to the grid
as an energy storage method.
And this is where it truly drives down costs.
The hydrogen fuel cells and cars
use this exact process in reverse…
…to power their electric motors.
The cost of hydrogen production by electrolysis
is completely dependent on electricity prices.
If an electrolyzer cannot take advantage
of cheaper intermittent surge electricity,…
…or use cheaper off-peak electricity,…
…then it’s losing out on real cost savings,…
…and can’t provide the valuable service
of energy storage for the grid.
This hydrogen facility at the Shell station…
…can form an important part
of the renewable grid infrastructure going forward.
Hydrogen’s greatest chance at success
is by fueling a new economy of hydrogen,…
…where natural gas pipelines
are supplemented…
…with hydrogen produced
with cheap renewable energy,…
…allowing hydrogen to gradually grow to be
the Earth’s primary energy storage method,…
…and facilitating renewable energy
to become a larger part of our energy grid,…
…without the worry
of weather impacting energy supply,…
…allowing nations to stop depending
on the importation of fossil fuels,…
…and instead grow their own fuel economy.
One tiny group of isolated islands,
in the bay of my home county of Galway,…
…is attempting to do just this.
The Aran Islands are rural Irish-speaking islands, popular with tourists for their unique landscape,…
…who have historically depended
completely on the mainland for fuel.
There are no trees here,
no coal, no turf, no oil,…
…but what they do have in plentiful supply
is wave and wind energy.
They are the perfect candidates
to develop a mini hydrogen economy.
An economy where they generate
their own renewable energy,…
…and create their own fuel
to heat their homes and power their vehicles.
Who knows? These tiny, obscure Irish islands
could be the birthplace…
…of the world’s first self-sustained,
renewable, zero carbon, hydrogen economy.
Thank you to Shell for sponsoring this video
and inviting me out to London to film on location.
If you’d like to learn more
about the future of transport systems,…
…Shell hosted a live recording
of the Intelligence-squared podcast in London,…
Which you can listen to
with the link in the description.
As always, thanks for watching,
and you may have noticed,…
…we crossed a little milestone this week.
I’m currently in Guam,
recording for some future projects…
…who went over production,
or Wendy as I like to call them,…
…and Joseph from real-life Laura.
You can get a behind-the-scenes look
into our trip by following me on Instagram.
It’s absolutely bizarre
that this little dream I had,…
…of creating a place
to celebrate the work of engineers,…
…has actually become
something much bigger than myself.
I remember messaging individual subscribers, thanking them for subscribing,…
…and marking off every 100 subs
on my chalkboard at home.
Thank you all
for facilitating this life of mine.
This milestone is just the first step.
Real Engineering has just begun.


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