Most of us take electricity for granted. We expect the lights to come on when we flip a switch, to boil the kettle, and to charge our phones whenever we need.

But while power failures make headlines in the developed world, more than 1 billion people can’t access electricity at all, and many more have an intermittent or unreliable supply.

Enass Abo-Hamed is on a mission to change that. She wants to make affordable and reliable green energy a reality using low-cost hydrogen production and storage technologies. While her prototypes still need some work, Abo-Hamed and colleagues at her startup, H2GO Power, are on track to develop energy stores big enough to power a hospital, a school or 100 houses.

 Enass Abo-Hamed, a World Economic Forum Young Scientist
Enass Abo-Hamed, a World Economic Forum Young Scientist
Image: H2GO Power

Their work underscores the increasing importance of renewables as energy security concerns and climate-change awareness grow. Even as green energy becomes more widely embraced, and new ways of harnessing it emerge, storage and grid imbalances mean a substantial amount is often wasted.

“As the clock ticks on a warming globe, some people choose to watch it happening, some choose to deny it, and some choose to act and reverse it,” Abo-Hamed told the Forum.

“We chose to do our part at H2GO Power by working on developing and deploying zero-emission technologies that could capture renewable energy, store it for long durations at scale for low-cost and then release it back to the user when the demand for power increases.”

Growth in global renewable energy.
Image: Renewables 2018 Global Status Report.

Developed while she was working on her PhD at Cambridge University, Abo-Hamed’s work has won wide acclaim. She was selected as an extraordinary young scientist by the World Economic Forum, is a member of the Forum’s Global Future Council on Advanced Energy Technologies and was selected by MIT Technology Review as an innovator who’s “changing the future of science and technology”.

Her patent-pending “sponge” is a porous nanoparticle-based smart material that produces, stores and releases hydrogen. The hydrolysis of metal and chemical hydrides produces hydrogen, which is then trapped within the polymer framework. Later, the stored hydrogen can be released using heat.

The hydrogen sponge.
Image: H2GO Power.

“I developed a safe and efficient hydrogen-storage system, but I wasn’t sure what problem it solved outside the lab,” Abo-Hamed told the Forum.

“After investigating it further, I realised that this very technology could play a role in helping to create clean, affordable and reliable power supplies.”

H2GO Power has also developed a “plug-and-play energy unit” that’s the size of a standard shipping container. These can be transported worldwide and could help in areas where there’s currently little or no access to electricity, for example in parts of rural Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.

Share of population without electricity in selected countries.
Image: IEA Energy Access Report.

Even so, making affordable, storable, accessible green energy a reality will require open mindedness from investors, governments and policy makers, she said, likening the challenge to a marathon, not a sprint. Getting the cost structure right so that it appeals to customers who don’t have many alternatives to polluting fuels will be central to the success, as will securing funding.

There’s also a focus on reducing dependency on polluting energy generation after a World Health Organization report showed more than 90% of the world's children breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at risk. This, combined with the threat of climate change and a desire to move away from a dependence on fossil fuels, may help shift the focus toward technologies like H2GO Power’s.

“It takes long cycles of development to scale production and reduce costs. So it takes time and big funding rounds,” Abo-Hamed said. “If we can contribute to increasing the adoption of clean technologies and encourage others to do the same, that could help combat climate change and help make air quality better.”

Enass Abo-Hamed is attending the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils in Dubai on 11 and 12 November. The gathering brings together more than 600 members from academia, business, government and civil society to provide forward-looking thought leadership and promote innovative thinking to address global, regional and geopolitical issues.