Recently, we were informed that the Rolls-Royce company, the British automobile giant, the second largest jet engine manufacturer in the world, conducted, in cooperation with the EasyJet airline, a successful and first experiment in the world of operating a modern jet engine using hydrogen. This is as part of the aviation world’s progress towards greener fuel alternatives. These companies are not the first to recognize the potential of hydrogen technologies to meet the climate challenge and provide “green” energy.
Not long ago, in August 2022, US President Joe Biden signed the “Inflation Reduction Act”, most of which is dedicated to the fight against the climate crisis. The law allocates about 370 billion dollars over 10 years for a wide range of investments in the field of renewable energy, electric vehicles and additional measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including a significant allocation to encourage the production and use of “green” hydrogen, that is, hydrogen produced through renewable energies.
This news came almost two decades after US President George Bush announced in a speech to the nation the allocation of 1.2 billion dollars for research so that “the first car driven by a child born today can be powered by hydrogen, and without pollution”.
Jeremy Rifkin, author of the book The Hydrogen Economy (2002), wrote at the time that “the hydrogen economy is within sight” but added: “Building new infrastructure to support the hydrogen economy will be complicated and expensive.” In those years, there were heated debates mainly around the topic of transportation – vehicles powered by fuel cells versus electric vehicles based on batteries, but it seems that for light vehicles this competition was decided in favor of electric vehicles powered by batteries. At the same time, the hydrogen solution (fuel cells) is already used today for heavy commercial vehicles, for example, recently hydrogen-powered trains (fuel cells) started operating in Germany, with a route of about 100 km.
Today, at the beginning of the year 2023, it is quite clear that the world is not going in the direction of a sweeping “hydrogen economy”. However, there is widespread agreement that hydrogen is an important component for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving the very challenging goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
And yet, while the 2022 report of the International Hydrogen Energy Agency shows growth in the demand for hydrogen, a closer reading reveals that the demand is mostly for traditional needs in the chemical industry and refining. This is not good news, because such demand is mostly supplied by gray hydrogen (hydrogen from polluting fossil sources). Second, the report indicates a significant and rapid increase in the number of projects for reduced emissions production of hydrogen.
Many are the challenges until massive adoption of green hydrogen. An example of such a challenge is in the field of production, where it is required to improve the energy efficiency of electrolysis processes and to increase the lifespan of electrolasers. This is because the conventional way of storing hydrogen by compression consumes a lot of energy. And while today most of the hydrogen is produced close to the place of use, it must be assumed that in the future an extensive network will be required to transport green hydrogen to areas of demand from areas where there are many renewable energies.
In practice, the International Energy Agency’s report shows the maturity of the various technologies for reduced production of hydrogen emissions. Bottom line, apart from two electrolysis technologies that have reached the stage of market penetration (Proton Exchange Membrane and Alkaline Water Electrolysis), most of the technologies are in less advanced stages of development. For example , regarding carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technologies, there are many initiatives in prototype or demonstration stages. The report also noted that progress in this area is quite slow.
For the State of Israel, hydrogen is an opportunity, as technology and innovation are required to reach the goals set by government policy in Europe and the US, a policy that is accompanied by financial incentives. Innovative Israeli companies with the potential to become significant global companies operate in the field of hydrogen production (such as H2Pro), hydrogen production and water treatment (such as Maygia), fuel cells for electric vehicle storage and charging (such as GenCell and Hydrolite) and others.
Indeed, thanks to the approval of the “Inflation Reduction Act”, elements have been introduced into the American economy that improve the feasibility of entering into green hydrogen projects. This is by providing significant tax discounts, which may lower the cost of green hydrogen production and bring it to the level of gray hydrogen (hydrogen production from natural gas). In order to take advantage of this opportunity (and others resulting from the large American investment in climate solutions), the preferred way for Israeli entrepreneurs and companies It is the establishment of partnerships with international companies that are looking for technology and innovation to improve the competitiveness of their offers.
According to the International Energy Agency, the hydrogen market has tripled since the mid-1970s and the vast majority is produced from fossil sources. The forecast is that the demand for hydrogen will more than double by the year 2030. As could be argued at the UN Climate Conference COP27 held in November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, developing countries also see this as an opportunity for their economies and place an emphasis on green hydrogen.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that hydrogen will play an important role in the basket of energy solutions needed by the world, and not only to deal with the climate crisis, as evidenced by the energy crisis that arose as a result of Europe’s great dependence on natural gas. In Israel, the cooperation of academia and industry, with the support of the government, is required in order to motivate and stimulate research and development in the fields of hydrogen, and to connect with the considerable efforts being made in Europe and the US to promote the field. Such a move will help attract investments from the private sector, without which it is not possible to trade and break into the markets.
The writer is CEO of the Bird Foundation