How hydrogen fuel offers a renewable solution

­­While developing the economy and improving life, mankind’s over-reliance and over-consumption of traditional fossil fuels have brought about a large number of energy security and environmental problems. Facing the looming global energy and environmental crisis, countries around the world have successively made legislation to encourage the development and utilization of renewable energy.

Our beautiful blue planet comes from water covering 2/3 surface of the planet. Obviously, water seems to be an unlimited reserve of energy.

Here is where we start, one of the elements making of water: Hydrogen.

Hydrogen: an efficient and clean fuel

The use of hydrogen energy as a solution to global energy and environmental problems was proposed by scientists 30 years ago.
The combustion of hydrogen only produces water, which basically does not cause pollution.
Hydrogen can be obtained by electrolyzing water, and 70% of the earth is covered by water. According to research data, the unit calorific value of hydrogen is about three times that of gasoline. Imagine that one day when people add hydrogen to cars to replace gasoline, not only will the energy consumption efficiency be greatly improved, but the pollution of car exhaust will also disappear. Therefore, it is generally believed that hydrogen will become the ultimate goal of mankind in the search for clean energy.

2016-2019 global hydro-vehicle capacity & increase rate
2014-2019 global number of refuel stations
2016-2019 global hydro-vehicle capacity & increase rate
2014-2019 global number of refuel stations

According to a report from the International Energy Agency, hydrogen technologies is continuing to grow and keep strong in the past years.
2019 was a record year for electrolysis capacity, not only on becoming operational but also significant plans by main economy entities were made for upcoming years.
The fuel cell electric vehicle market almost doubled because of outstanding expansion in China, Japan and Korea. From the perspective of the global hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ownership, according to statistics, the global hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ownership increased to 10,409 in 2019, a year-on-year increase of 99.29%.

In terms of the number of hydrogen refuelling stations, according to statistics, the number of global hydrogen refuelling stations reached 432 in 2019, and the number of global hydrogen refuelling stations increased by 135% from 2015 to 2019.

However, low-carbon production capacity remained relatively constant and is still off track with the SDS. More efforts are needed to: scale up to reduce costs; replace high-carbon with low-carbon hydrogen in current applications; and expand hydrogen use to new applications. Innovations and application in the industries are becoming clearly key elements to drive a large scale development on hydrogen energy in the future.

Integration opportunities provided by hydrogen and fuel cells 

Hydrogen is a flexible energy carrier, which can be produced from a variety of regional primary energy sources. In addition, it can be effectively converted into any form of energy to meet various end-use energy needs. Hydrogen is particularly suitable for fuel cells that use hydrogen to generate electricity.

Hydrogen with a low carbon footprint has the potential to contribute to a significant reduction in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and help control global temperature rise within 2°C, as described in the International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Outlook (ETP) for high hydrogen development 2° The C scenario is the same. In addition, compared with direct fossil fuel combustion, the use of hydrogen can reduce local air pollutant emissions and noise pollution. By continuing to use fossil fuel resources to meet end-use energy needs under the 2°C scenario, the combination of hydrogen and CCS can provide measures to ensure energy security and help maintain a diversified fuel mix.

As an energy carrier, hydrogen can achieve a balance between energy supply and demand in a centralized or decentralized manner, helping to improve the overall flexibility of the energy system. By connecting different energy transmission and distribution (T&D) networks, low-carbon energy can meet end-use energy fields that are challenging to decarbonize, including transportation, industry, and construction. In remote areas where access to the grid is almost impossible, these connections can expand the provision of energy services to off-grid areas while minimizing emissions.

  • Through market-driven technology and fuel-neutral policies, all energy sectors are encouraged to apply technologies that improve fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Stable policies and regulatory frameworks—including carbon pricing, tariffs, fuel economy standards, renewable energy standards, or zero-emission vehicle development plans—are important to improve market certainty for investors and entrepreneurs.
  • Through effective policy support to reduce costs, promote investment and early market deployment of hydrogen and fuel cell technology and its infrastructure. National and regional priorities should clarify their value chain and target market barriers.
  • In order to promote a safe and reliable application and measurement of hydrogen energy in the terminal field, it is necessary to continue to strengthen and coordinate the corresponding international norms and standards.
    By providing public and private funds for the R&D and design of key hydrogen energy technologies such as fuel cells and electrolyzers, we will continue to support technological progress and innovation. Increase the focus on research in cross-cutting areas, such as materials, which can play a transformative role in improving effectiveness. Where possible, through international cooperation projects to maximize the efficiency of capital use.
  • Through the use of integrated modelling methods, deepen the understanding of specific regional interactions between different energy sectors to quantify the benefits of energy system integration.
  • In the relevant areas, accelerate the promotion of activities aimed at promoting the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from fossil-derived hydrogen production to mature commercial applications.

Energy storage and utilization in transportation, industry and construction 

Hydrogen is very suitable as an energy carrier because it can store low-carbon energy. A small amount of hydrogen with a low carbon footprint can be stored under limited space and weight requirements to achieve long-distance low-carbon transportation through fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Large amounts of hydrogen can be stored for a long time, helping to integrate large amounts of intermittent renewable energy (VRE) into the energy system for power generation and heating. Systems that use hydrogen as an energy carrier can make full use of intermittent renewable energy, such as power-fuel, electricity-electricity, or electricity-gas conversion. Otherwise, intermittent renewable energy will be discarded when the supply exceeds demand.

Fuel cell vehicles can replace today’s traditional cars to provide travel and transportation services with extremely low carbon emissions. By 2050, the deployment of 25% of fuel cell vehicles in road transportation can contribute up to 10% of the cumulative transportation-related carbon emission reductions, prompting the ETP 6°C scenario (6DS) to be transformed into 2DS. The specific emission reduction degree depends on the different Regional situation. Assuming rapid growth in fuel cell vehicle sales, after launching the first batch of 10,000 fuel cell vehicles, it is expected that a self-sustaining market will be formed within 15 to 20 years.

Although hydrogen and fuel cells have great development space and energy security advantages in the field of end-use energy, the development of hydrogen power generation, transmission and distribution, and retail infrastructure is still challenging. For example, the risks associated with the development of the fuel cell vehicle market have always been a major obstacle to infrastructure investment. For each of the 150 million fuel cell vehicles that are assumed to be sold between now and 2050, depending on the region, it will cost US$900 to US$1,900 for the development of hydrogen infrastructure.

Key actions in the next ten years

  • By putting tens of thousands of vehicles into use, promote the construction of infrastructure and cross-border projects such as hydrogen production, hydrogen transmission and distribution networks, and hydrogen refuelling stations (at least 500 to 1,000 stations in appropriate regions around the world), to prove the fuel cell vehicle’s Technical feasibility and economy. Strengthen deployment plans in Europe, Japan, South Korea and California and the use of fixed fleets.
  • Let relevant industries and regional, national and local authorities participate in the formulation of risk reduction strategies, including the development of financial tools and innovative business models, to introduce the fuel cell vehicle market to reduce the risk of hydrogen energy transmission and distribution and retail infrastructure development.
  • Increase the scale of hydrogen-based energy storage systems suitable for the integration of intermittent renewable energy, and collect and analyze performance data in real-time.
  • Establish a regulatory framework to eliminate grid access barriers for power storage systems (including electricity-fuel and electricity-gas applications). In the relevant areas, establish a regulatory framework for mixing hydrogen into the natural gas grid.
  • Increase data on resource availability and hydrogen production costs at national and regional levels. Based on the integration of intermittent renewable energy, other power system flexibility options, and the competitive demand for surplus renewable power, analyze the potential of abandoning wind and solar power that may be used for hydrogen production in the future.
  • Resolve potential market barriers to the use of low-carbon hydrogen energy in industrial fields (for example, in refineries).
  • Expand promotional activities and training programs to raise awareness of hydrogen.

Challenges: everywhere along the chain

Production Storage Application of Hydrogen fuel

Schematic diagram of hydrogen energy industry chain

The upstream of the hydrogen energy industry chain is the production of hydrogen. The main technical methods include traditional hydrogen production from fossil raw materials, hydrogen production from chemical raw materials, hydrogen production from industrial exhaust gas, hydrogen production from the electrolysis of water, and new hydrogen production technologies. Hydrogen energy has large reserves, high specific energy, storable, and transportable. The middle reaches of the hydrogen energy industry chain is the storage link. At present, the main storage and transportation technologies for hydrogen energy include high-pressure gas, low temperature, solid material storage and transportation, and organic liquid storage and transportation. Downstream is the application of hydrogen energy, involving many aspects of energy. In addition to traditional petrochemical industrial applications such as synthetic ammonia, oil and coal deep processing, it also includes applications in fields such as hydrogen refuelling stations and fuel cell vehicles. The wide application of hydrogen needs to overcome the challenges of cost, storage, infrastructure construction and other aspects. In terms of production costs, there are various hydrogen extraction methods. As technology advances, the cost of hydrogen energy extraction will drop. There are still many storage forms of hydrogen, such as gas, liquid, nanotube, hydrogen ion…… There are a few tough barriers to be overcome:


  • Efficiency Hydrogen fuel vehicle needs to be improved. A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle is essentially an electric vehicle. The hydrogen is stored in the high-pressure tank on the car, and the hydrogen energy is converted into electric energy through the fuel cell to provide power to the car. The energy is stored in the battery, and the electric energy in the battery can be used to optimize the operating efficiency. It can be found from Figure 1 that, compared with internal combustion engine vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells can significantly reduce carbon emissions, and at the same time, their maximum mileage can reach three times that of pure electric vehicles.
  • The price of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles remains high. In 2015, Toyota announced that the price of the latest hydrogen fuel cell vehicle during the trial operation period was 60,000 US dollars, but the price may mainly reflect the willingness of customers to pay, rather than the cost of producing the car because hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are currently mainly It is aimed at high-income groups and car technology enthusiasts and requires a corresponding hydrogen refuelling station near the place of residence. Up to now, only some cities in the United States, Germany, Japan and South Korea have equipped hydrogen refuelling stations. Through the comparison between the cost of the vehicle power scheme in Table 1, it can be found that, compared with several other vehicle energy supply methods, the price of fuel cell vehicles is very high at present, but there is a lot of room for a decline in the future. It has dropped to about 55% of the current price.
  • Number of Hydrogen refuelling station is still far from enough. Hydrogen refuelling stations are a vital factor in the fuel supply chain of fuel cell electric vehicles. Providing as many hydrogen refuelling stations as possible is a prerequisite for realizing consumer benefits. The setting of hydrogen refuelling stations is primarily determined by the daily hydrogen fuel demand, the storage method of the vehicle-mounted hydrogen fuel, and the manufacturing and transportation methods of the hydrogen fuel. Determining the size of a hydrogen refuelling station is a critical step. A small hydrogen refuelling station may only need 50kg to 100kg per day in the initial stage, but in a mature market, the hydrogen refuelling station may require 2000kg of hydrogen fuel per day.
  • Hydrogen fuel for hydrogen refuelling stations can be provided in the following two ways:

    (1) Transport from a factory that produces hydrogen to the hydrogen refuelling station;
    (2) Small-scale electrolyzers and natural gas steam are used in the hydrogen refuelling station Reforming to produce hydrogen.

Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages: large-scale, centralized hydrogen production minimizes the cost of hydrogen production under a large-scale economy, but requires the transportation of hydrogen fuel, which increases the cost of hydrogen; In the case of large-scale hydrogen production, transportation and distribution costs are reduced, but the cost of hydrogen production is increased. Therefore, finding the best network configuration requires detailed analysis and consideration of various factors, such as the geographic distribution of hydrogen production resources, the existing infrastructure, and the estimated hydrogen fuel demand of hydrogen refuelling stations.

How far is the “hydrogen economy” from us?

At present, people have begun to put into action the theoretical ideas of the “hydrogen economy” era. World-renowned automakers are investing in the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Considering various factors, the large-scale commercial application of hydrogen-powered vehicles will take about 15 to 20 years.

The United States is an advocate of hydrogen energy economy and one of the most important countries to promote the development of hydrogen energy. In November 2002, the US Department of Energy promulgated the “National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap”, which comprehensively and systematically explained hydrogen energy technologies such as hydrogen preparation, storage and transportation, conversion, and application. So far, the US government has promulgated a series of policies and launched large-scale scientific research programs to actively guide and strive to realize the gradual transition from a fossil energy economy to a hydrogen energy economy.

China will accelerate the development and industrial application of hydrogen energy, and hydrogen energy has been included in the “Energy Technology Revolution and Innovation Action Plan.”

Japan is also at the forefront of the world in the development and utilization of hydrogen energy. In 2014, the “Strategic Roadmap for Hydrogen Energy and Fuel Cells” was released, clarifying the three-phase development goals for 2025, 2030 and 2040. In 2017, Japan released the “Hydrogen Energy Basic Strategy”, which put forward specific development goals in terms of hydrogen energy supply and utilization, and plans to fully popularize fuel cell vehicles by 2050.

The European Union has also set a goal to increase the proportion of hydrogen energy in the energy structure to 12%-14% by 2050, with a total investment of 180-470 billion euros. As part of Europe’s new industrial strategy, the European Union launched the “European Clean Hydrogen Alliance” on July 8. Countries such as France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands have all participated in the effort to make breakthroughs. According to the latest “French Future Energy” plan, it is planned to give priority to the promotion of hydrogen supply, so as to lay a solid foundation for boosting hydrogen energy demand. By 2030, France will have a production capacity of 600,000 tons of “clean hydrogen” produced through renewable energy and nuclear energy. Earlier this year, Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell announced that it would invest billions of euros to build an offshore wind farm to help make breakthroughs in the field of hydrogen energy. The German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy also issued the “National Hydrogen Energy Strategy” plan. The capital investment plans to invest 9 billion euros in the field of hydrogen energy by 2030. The framework has recently led to the launch of a project. The Westkuste 100 project invested by Germany will use offshore wind energy to produce green hydrogen and use the generated waste heat and oxygen. A substantial step has been taken for sustainable and environmentally friendly energy development. Spain has released a hydrogen energy development plan and plans to invest 8 billion euros in this field. At present, the Spanish domestic energy giant Iberdrola has made an investment of hundreds of millions of euros, and will soon start building Europe’s largest industrial green hydrogen plant in Madrid, using electrolysis to convert renewable energy into hydrogen fuel.


The International Energy Agency hopes to limit the global temperature rise by not exceeding 2°C by limiting the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. If this ambitious goal is to be achieved in 2050, the total global carbon emissions in all energy-related fields must be reduced to less than half of the current value. Among them, energy production and transmission links need to complete about half of the total emission reduction tasks, and such a low-carbon energy system must rely on the complete reduction of carbon emissions in the energy production part. The key is to deploy wind energy and biomass. The application of renewable energy such as energy and hydropower. To achieve the goal of temperature ceiling within 2°C, renewable energy power generation by 2050 will account for 63% of the total power generation. The remaining about half of the emission reduction tasks are completed by key application areas such as transportation, industry, and construction. It is necessary to improve efficiency in the end application of energy and use low-carbon hydrogen energy, biomass energy and other renewable energy sources to replace traditional energy sources. Of fossil energy.


In view of the problems in the development of hydrogen energy and fuel cells, it is recommended that the government, industry, scientific research and other departments and fields provide policy guarantees and technical support.

  • Support from government departments:
    To achieve long-term climate and energy conservation and emission reduction goals, establish stable policies and regulatory frameworks, formulate carbon pricing, fuel tariffs or renewable fuel standards, and encourage the use of high fuel efficiency and low emission technologies in all energy fields. On the existing basis, strengthen the fuel economy in the field of road transportation, and limit the emission of CO2 and other pollutants.
    • The report made the following specific recommendations to the government:(1) Use appropriate economic policies to limit the number of fossil fuel vehicles, such as a comprehensive tax system, taxation of vehicles that emit CO2, etc.;(2) Strengthen policy framework construction, To solve the emission problem of the transportation sector;(3) Establish a market framework to encourage the power system services provided by energy storage technology with appropriate remuneration;(4) Improve safety regulations to solve the problem of hydrogen transportation and distribution, retail infrastructure, and Safety issues between hydrogen measurement standards;(5) Support the deployment of hydrogen energy development demonstration bases and increase investment in research on key hydrogen energy technologies, such as hydrogen production by electrolysis and fuel cells;(6) Solve potential market barriers, such as raw materials;(7) Expand publicity and education programs to raise public awareness
  • Industrial application:
    It is necessary to determine the design and manufacturing methods of the lowest cost system for fuel cells and electrolyzers to extend their service life and slow down the rate of ageing. By proving the practicability of fuel cell electric vehicles on the road and the economy of the entire industrial chain, increase their utilization rate. According to the specific characteristics of different regions, accelerate the development of fossil fuel-based hydrogen production processes according to local conditions, and take measures to reduce CO2 emissions during the production process to form a mature commercial system as soon as possible.
  • Academic Research:
    Analyze energy supply and demand, study the connection between different energy sources, and study renewable energy conversion systems based on hydrogen energy. In terms of hydrogen production, it is necessary to reduce carbon emissions in upstream production and distribution fields as much as possible, while reducing costs and improving resource utilization. In terms of hydrogen storage, it is necessary to obtain the geological structure data applicable to the underground gas storage area. At the end of the use of hydrogen energy, it is necessary to formulate corresponding use specifications to improve the safety and environmental protection of the use of hydrogen energy.

About the authors

David de Brouwer

Founder / Managing Director Engibex

Engibex consultant - Jeff Zhang

Jeff Zhang

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Electrical Mechanics Engineering

Expertise in numerical modelling & experimental data mining. Great enthusiasm in innovative product design & R&D.