Hydrogen-energy source for the future? 2 minutes spent reading
Innovation

Hydrogen-energy source for the future?

Michael Leithinger

Hydrogen is a gas with a long history in the steel industry, as a component of coking gas, for example. Now research is being undertaken into its potential as a reducing agent in steel production, and as an energy source for the future.

Hydrogen (H2) is a colorless and odorless, very light and non-toxic gas, and the most abundant chemical element in the universe. On earth it only appears in molecular form, in water and in all organic compounds. Hydrogen has a high chemical affinity to oxygen–higher than to iron. Consequently, hydrogen could be used as a reducing agent in place of carbon, one of the topics being examined in the H2FUTURE and SuSteel (Sustainable Steel) projects. voestalpine and other European steel manufacturers are already actively considering ways of using hydrogen in steel production.

Many and varied uses

Each year around 750 billion m³ (70 million tons) of hydrogen is produced. It is used as a raw or basic material in various industries (fertilizer, chemicals and food industry, refineries, semiconductor development), as an energy source and storage medium, and as a fuel for aerospace and automotive fuel cells. Hydrogen’s first industrial application was as a lifting gas in balloons and airships. However, as H2-air mixtures are highly flammable, this led to repeated accidents: the Hindenburg catastrophe in the 1930s remains firmly anchored in the public consciousness. But due to its lower energy density, hydrogen is in fact significantly less critical than natural gas.

Energy source of the future

An increasing number of scientists are working intensively with hydrogen, seeing in this element an energy source for the future, one which can make the world less dependent on fossil fuels. Hydrogen really could be used to store electricity generated from volatile renewables, releasing it again as required. Today, however, up to 96% of hydrogen is produced by breaking down natural gas using the so-called reforming process. This is a very CO2-intensive process. 4% is created as a result of the chloralkali process which generates large quantities of lye. New and sustainable hydrogen electrolysis processes, such as the proton exchange membrane technology which allows hydrogen to be produced in an almost climate-neutral manner, are turning hydrogen into the hope for the future. The H2FUTURE project is now examining whether this technology can also be used on an industrial scale.