Norway will invest in hydrogen: what happens in the event of a gas leak?

Hydrogen is an attractive alternative to fossil fuels, especially for powering trucks, ships and airplanes, where the use of batteries is not so easy.

The batteries quickly become too large and heavy if these large ships and transport vehicles have to travel far.

As a result, hydrogen is being discussed like never before. Norway and the EU have said they will invest more in hydrogen in the coming years.

But much more needs to be done before hydrogen becomes truly climate-friendly. And it’s not just about the manufacture of hydrogen, which is one of the challenges highlighted by the Norwegian government in its hydrogen strategy published in the summer of 2020.

One thing that is rarely talked about is hydrogen gas itself. What happens when he flees in the vicinity?

Researchers at Cicero, the International Centre for Climate and Environment Research in Oslo, are finding the answers to these and other questions about hydrogen in a new research project.

The world’s lightest gas

“It is important that we are aware of the effects that hydrogen can have on the climate and the environment, before we start large-scale production and use. In this way, we can avoid making the same mistake as when we started using chlorofluorocarbon gases. , which would later prove damaging to the ozone layer,” said Maria Sand, a cicero researcher leading the new project.

Some of the hydrogen will inevitably escape during production, transport, storage and use.

“Hydrogen is the lightest gas in the world, so it’s impossible to avoid leaks,” she says.

May affect the whole situation

This concept is probably new to many, including politicians and scientists.

“People often think there is no hydrogen emissions because it’s not a greenhouse gas,” Sand said.

Hydrogen alone does not trap heat inside the atmosphere as CO2 and other greenhouse gases do.

But hydrogen can still affect the whole situation. At least in theory.

Calculate the effect with climate models

Cicero researchers launched the new project in collaboration with industry and several international research groups.

Sand says that when she and her colleagues started looking into the problem, she was surprised at what they found. Existing studies suggest that hydrogen emissions may have a negative effect.

“Even if hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas, it can affect the composition of the atmosphere,” she says.

But the extent to which this is happening – or could – is still uncertain.

“We don’t know if the effect is significant, but we also don’t know if it’s small,” Sand said.

Cicero researchers contacted other scientists who studied the issue in the United States and Europe, so that they could collectively reflect.

The plan is to calculate responses using five different climate models. They will also use actual measurements of hydrogen in the atmosphere to check if their calculations are correct.

The ozone layer may be damaged

Researchers will examine a range of possible effects.

The first is that hydrogen can potentially damage the ozone layer.

The gas can cause beautiful clouds to form in the sky. But the explanation of the formation of clouds is not so beautiful.

When hydrogen is released into the air, it is often converted to water. This can occur at heights in the stratosphere, where the ozone layer is located.

‘The ozone layer is very dry, but some reactions with hydrogen can cause water vapour to form,’ explains Sand.

This is not good news for ozone.

What happens is the same as when it is very cold, which can cause pearly clouds to form in the sky.

These coloured clouds are actually proof that the ozone layer is decomposing.

More methane in the atmosphere

More hydrogen can also – indirectly – give us more methane into the atmosphere. And methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

The explanation of how this can happen revolves around a substance called hydroxide.

This substance usually acts as a kind of drain that removes methane from the atmosphere. However, if hydrogen is present, the process may be interrupted.

“Hydroxide sucks methane from the atmosphere, but it also eliminates hydrogen. So hydrogen starts to compete with methane,” Sand said.

Amplifying effects

In total, several different chemical reactions can affect both the climate and the environment.

“It’s not just about combining the different contributions, because everything is connected to everything and the reactions can reinforce each other,” says Sand.

The climate models that the researchers will use are called chemical models, which take into account the different chemical reactions that take place in the air above us.

A welcome research project

He has worked with hydrogen technology for 30 years, previously as a researcher and for the past ten years as marketing director at SINTEF, Scandinavia’s largest independent research institute.

He said he would be surprised if hydrogen emissions had a significant negative effect on the climate, but welcomed the research project and was curious about the results.

“It’s important to understand that. If there are any major effects, we absolutely need to know,” said Mr. Holst.

At the same time, it highlights other challenges that also need to be addressed before hydrogen becomes a true low-emission technology.

Fossil energy the main source

The least respectful aspect of the hydrogen climate right now is how it is produced.

“Most of the hydrogen today is produced from fossil fuels, such as coal, oil or natural gas, which produces CO2 emissions,” said Mr. Holst.

This is also one of the reasons why Norway has a good starting point for producing hydrogen.

Norway has access to a lot of green energy, such as hydropower. Finally, this will be increased by the energy of the wind and the sun.

Water as a by-product

The energy of waterfalls, the sun or the wind can turn water into hydrogen. In theory, the only thing that is released is oxygen.

This method is called water electrolysis and has been called ‘green hydrogen’.

When hydrogen is to be used as fuel, for example in a truck, the process goes in the opposite direction.

Then the truck sucks oxygen from the air which, along with hydrogen, drives the engine. The only emissions, in theory at least, are pure water.

The sun and the wind are falling

Renewable energy hydrogen has been too expensive in recent years for companies to use this most climate-friendly solution.

But now that solar and wind energy prices are falling, more and more people are turning to the production of hydrogen “green,” said Mr. Holst.

“Yara recently said they would come back to using renewable sources,” he says.

Yara is a Norwegian company that manufactures fertilizers. For many years, the company’s engineers have been making hydrogen to make artificial fertilizers.

“They first used hydropower for this process, but in the 1960s they gradually switched to natural gas because it was cheaper,” said Mr. Holst.

Natural gas with carbon capture

The Norwegian government has also committed to invest in the production of hydrogen with natural gas, of which the country has much of its oil industry.

But then the technology will be combined with carbon capture and storage, to make it more climate-friendly. This is often referred to as ‘blue hydrogen’.

He believes that hydrogen manufactured in this way can play an important role in Europe, while countries are moving to decarbonisation.

On the other hand, there could be a financial risk of investing large sums in carbon capture and storage, he said.

When Europe prioritises the production of hydrogen from renewable sources, this can lead to a gradual decline in demand for “blue” hydrogen, he said.

Low efficiency less important

But there is also another valid critique of hydrogen.

The problem is that much of the energy needed to make it is lost along the way. In other words, the technology is relatively low in efficiency.

He believes that efficiency will be less and less important.

As the world moves to produce hydrogen with renewable energy, he says, energy consumption will no longer lead to more emissions.

“Solar cells have an efficiency of 20-25 percent. No one is upset and says we should stop using solar cells because the efficiency is so low,” he said.

Thus, even if hydrogen has not yet become climate-friendly, the marketing director believes it is important that Norway does not stay on the fence.

“Since we know we need hydrogen to reach zero emissions by 2050, we are not doing ourselves any favours if we don’t invest now,” he says.

Expect results in 2022

But this calculation does not include hydrogen emissions from natural sources. So far, scientists do not know enough what effect they will have.

The Cicero researchers behind the new project believe their first results will be available in 2022.

Sand thinks hydrogen will be the best option in some cases.

“Not everything can be electrified, like long-distance transport and heavy transport. Hydrogen can play an important role. But it always depends on what it replaces,” Sand said.

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