Nature and Biodiversity

Unlocking hydrogen innovation: Paving the way for a sustainable future

An aerial view of a dearest at sunset photo: Hydrogen innovation will propel a green revolution.

Hydrogen innovation will propel a green revolution. Image: Unsplash/NEOM

Ben Queisser
Head of Technology & Innovation, NEOM Company
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Climate and Nature

  • Hydrogen, once demoted to the sidelines, is now taking centre stage as a versatile and clean energy carrier.
  • Hydrogen’s potential to revolutionize various sectors, from transportation to industrial processes, cannot be overstated.
  • As we grapple with the consequences of carbon emissions and climate change, hydrogen offers a viable solution to decarbonize our energy systems and usher in a new era of sustainability.

Low-carbon hydrogen is more than a mere technological advancement; it signifies a profound paradigm shift in how we perceive and utilize energy.

Once overshadowed by traditional fuels, low-carbon hydrogen is now emerging as a transformative force at the forefront of our efforts to combat climate change. This versatile and clean energy carrier has the potential to revolutionize multiple sectors, opening up a new era of sustainability and environmental responsibility.

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A paradigm shift in green energy

Hydrogen, unlike an electron, which can carry clean energy through hard-wired copper cables over long distances, is a molecule which can be embedded into multiple forms of matter – gaseous, liquid and solid – giving clean, renewable energy much more versatility to find its way into our daily needs. It is renewable energy unplugged. Using hydrogen in this way means you can reach the lowest possible carbon content, which is why it is called “green”.

In transportation, where conventional fuels contribute significantly to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen emerges as a game-changer. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles present a zero-emission alternative, emitting only water vapour as a by-product of the electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. It addresses air quality concerns in urban areas and reduces the transportation sector’s overall carbon footprint.

The ability to power buses, trucks and the maritime and aviation sectors offers a tangible and scalable solution to mitigate the environmental impact of our global mobility systems. Improving the efficiency, durability and affordability of fuel cells for diverse applications in transportation, heating and power generation will also expand hydrogen’s reach.

Circular energy source

Transport is only one example where green hydrogen can lend its strengths. When capturing carbon emissions, we are confronted with our entire energy system by processing and burning fossil fuels. You can combine the captured carbon with green hydrogen and reverse this process by creating recycled or circular carbon fuel, which allows us to stop the continuous and uncontrolled cycle of the release of carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere.

Beyond transportation, the impact of hydrogen extends to industrial processes, which are often major contributors to carbon emissions. Hydrogen’s versatility comes to the fore as it becomes essential in decarbonizing industries such as steel and cement production.

Through a process known as hydrogen direct reduction, steel manufacturers can replace traditional carbon-intensive methods, significantly reducing emissions. Tailoring hydrogen applications to specific needs of industries such as steel production, aviation and maritime shipping will require innovative approaches such as dedicated fuel cell systems and optimized combustion technologies.

Paving the way for a carbon-neutral future

NEOM, a region in northwest Saudi Arabia, a green-field development and ambitious infrastructure project, has demonstrated the possibility for green hydrogen production at a massive scale. As a region, NEOM benefits from abundant solar and wind resources, making it amenable to renewable energy projects.

NEOM’s strategy is synonymous with the goals of the green hydrogen economy. As such, the NEOM Green Hydrogen Company and industry partners are building the world’s largest green hydrogen production plant through electrolysis powered by renewable energy sources.

ENOWA is NEOM's subsidiary for sustainable energy, water, and hydrogen and is central to shaping the region’s energy landscape. Together, the entities hope to redefine the possibilities of a modern, eco-conscious city.

Innovative technologies have been pivotal in realizing this vision and have propelled the shift towards sustainable hydrogen production. Advances in electrolysis, mainly through the development of efficient and cost-effective electrolyzers, play a central role. Advancements in electrolyzer technology for splitting water using renewable electricity are crucial. Focus areas include high-efficiency materials, low-cost manufacturing and integration with variable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Accelerating hydrogen adoption

Developing novel materials for storing large volumes of hydrogen at low cost and without significant energy loss is critical for facilitating transportation and long-term stability. Converting existing pipelines and building new ones for hydrogen transport while exploring alternative carriers such as organic liquid hydrides or ammonia can offer more flexible and cost-effective delivery options.

In pursuing a sustainable and hydrogen-powered future, global collaborations and investment in research play a pivotal role in accelerating the adoption of this transformative energy source, which is why ENOWA is setting up a Hydrogen Innovation Development Centre and the NEOM Green Hydrogen and e-Fuels Applied Research Institute in NEOM’s industrial city of Oxagon.

By attracting energy experts and researchers and allowing them to work alongside the growing sectors and industries of NEOM as a nexus for research and development, bringing together experts, researchers and industry leaders, the aim is to drive horizontal and vertical innovation of hydrogen technologies.

The path to hydrogen integration

On a global level, hydrogen production has been beyond commercial reach without sizeable government support. Governments, recognizing the need for strategic planning and investment, provide incentives, regulatory frameworks and infrastructure support to propel hydrogen projects forward. Simultaneously, private sector engagement, driven by innovation and investment, ensures that hydrogen technologies are developed, scaled and integrated into mainstream energy systems.

Infrastructure development emerges as a key challenge in the path to hydrogen integration. To facilitate the seamless adoption of hydrogen as a mainstream energy source, there is a pressing need for a robust network of production facilities, storage solutions and transportation systems. Additionally, developments in transportation infrastructure, including pipelines and fuelling stations, are critical components in ensuring the accessibility and distribution of hydrogen across diverse sectors.

However, the versatility of hydrogen and its ability to be embedded as an energy carrier into chemicals and fuels such as ammonia, methanol or even synthetic circular carbon fuels such as gasoline or kerosene opens up an entire pathway for using existing infrastructures. This adaptability reduces the time to implementation and offers a much cheaper way than building entire new power lines to transport renewable power.

Trust and sustainability in the hydrogen economy

Establishing robust and transparent systems for certifying the origin and environmental footprint of hydrogen is as crucial as fostering consumer trust and building a sustainable market. It is imperative to abandon attempts to classify the beneficial impact of low-carbon hydrogen by squeezing it into a technology-driven system of colour boxes. Building public understanding of low-carbon hydrogen’s potential and impact is essential for widespread adoption and attracting investment.

As we stand on the cusp of a hydrogen revolution, the possibilities for a sustainable future are within reach. Hydrogen innovation is not a paradigm shift that requires myriads of technology experts to invent the future but it is a straightforward technological advancement comparable to what we have observed in the solar industry. The only paradigm shift with hydrogen is that it has the potential to reshape the way we approach and consume energy.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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