Sustainability – Is hydrogen a viable option?

August 31, 2021

You have probably heard of the Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket launch that happened in July. The launch became famous due to the unique shape of the rocket, and it started a new Star Wars between billionaires. Less social media attention got the fact that the rocket propellant was zero-carbon. Liquid hydrogen and oxygen don’t cause carbon emissions when burnt.

Potential alternative for fossil fuels

Of course, liquid hydrogen has been used as a rocket fuel for decades, but these media stunts are effective in bringing important matters up. As hydrogen-based economy is an alternative for the current fossil fuel-based economy. Or at least it has potential uses as we are struggling off from fossil fuels. 

Let’s start off by listing the pros and cons of hydrogen. 

Pros Cons 
Zero-carbon (from sustainable sources) Lack of existing infrastructure 
High energy density Difficult to transport and store 
Renewable supply Low efficiency of production 
P2X and industrial potential  

As the simplest, lightest and most common element in the universe, hydrogen has many benefits in comparison to its fossil fuel counterparts. The best part is that it doesn’t have a carbon chain meaning that burning hydrogen does not accelerate global warming. 

Renewable supply with high energy density

But unfortunately, currently hydrogen is mostly made from natural gas or petroleum products. Luckily there’s still plenty of fish in the sea, as water is 1/8 hydrogen by mass. With rapidly developing electrolysis hydrogen and oxygen can be separated from the water molecules efficiently. 

Hydrogen has also a superior energy density when compared to for example gasoline. Hydrogen has 119 MJ of energy per kg when gasoline has to settle for 43 MJ/kg. And to put that into perspective, the best lithium-ion batteries reach 0,3 MJ/kg. So, hydrogen is an excellent energy storage.

P2X and source material possibilities

The last, but not least of the pros of hydrogen is the potential for P2X and industrial source material uses. Hydrogen rarely exists as an H₂ molecule on Earth as it forms compounds easily. That quality can be utilized in P2X-applications which create carbon-neutral fuels or to replace fossil fuels in the chemical industry. Hydrogen and carbon dioxide can be used to make sustainable ammonia and methanol.

Practical issues with use

If hydrogen is all-around better than fossil fuels, why don’t we just start to use it instead? Well, it is as easy as getting rid of smoking. Seems simple, you just need to stop smoking, but in practice it has a lot more to it. We have built our societies and infrastructure for decades to support the use of fossil fuels, so it will take decades to rebuild them. Unless we step up the game as we don’t have decades if we want to have a habitable planet for humans in the future. 

Storing and transporting hydrogen is tricky as hydrogen is a small-molecular gas that eventually passes through even the best seals (that are of course made by TT Gaskets) and metal cylinders. Hydrogen also has a low volumetric energy density, meaning that storing hydrogen requires large tanks or it must be compressed or liquified. Compressing does not help much as the pressure would have to be hundreds of bars to be effective and that leads to both practical and safety issues. Liquification also has its issues, as liquid hydrogen is roughly –260 °C and thus gasifies easily which leads to lost energy.

All hope is not lost

Despite these problems with hydrogen, it still is a potential solution for a sustainable future. As mentioned, hydrogen forms compounds easily which can be used as an energy storage or source. If we create hydrogen with electrolysis where it is needed, the excess can be stored as ammonia or methanol and used as such in vehicles or turned back into electricity and heat in local power plants. All in all, we at TT Gaskets are excited about more sustainable future and are ready to provide smarter seals for a safer tomorrow for these new applications.