As the effects of climate change become more visible in the rising average temperatures, melting glaciers, changing snow and rain patterns, and increasing prevalence of droughts, the push toward sustainability continues to gain momentum around the world. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveals that greenhouse gas emissions, which are primarily responsible for the depleting ozone layer and rising air pollution levels, reached 6,558 million metric tons (14.5 trillion pounds) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent in the U.S. in 2019, registering an increment of around 2% since 1990.
Moreover, emissions of CO2, which is one of the major greenhouse gases, surged in the country by 3% between 1990 and 2019. The organization also reported that nitrous oxide emissions, mainly from agricultural soil management practices, such as the utilization of nitrogen as a fertilizer, grew by 1%. Furthermore, emissions of various fluorinated gases, such as sulfur hexafluoride, nitrogen trifluoride, perfluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons, released because of household, industrial, and commercial activities, grew by 86% during the same period in the country.
The transportation sector is a huge emitter of many of these toxic gases. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the sector is responsible for 24% of the direct CO2 emissions. Moreover, internal-combustion-engine-powered trucks, buses, cars, and two- and three-wheelers account for around three-quarters of the CO2 emissions released by the transportation sector, while the emissions from shipping and aviation continue to rise exponentially globally.
Thus, the burgeoning need for a cleaner planet is fueling the demand for new-energy vehicles. For instance, fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) utilize a propulsion system that is similar to the one used in battery and hybrid electric vehicles, where the energy is stored as hydrogen and converted to electricity by the fuel cell. Unlike the conventional thermal-combustion-engine-powered vehicles, they generate no harmful emissions. Moreover, they need short refueling breaks (of less than 4 minutes) and offer an impressive mileage of around 30 miles per gallon on average. These vehicles are also equipped with regenerative braking, which assists in storing the energy lost during braking, which increase their fuel efficiency.
Thus, in order to lower the emission of harmful gases and mitigate environmental concerns, governments of several countries are implementing stringent emission policies and launching environmental awareness campaigns, which are, consequently, propelling the deployment of such vehicles and driving the worldwide need for hydrogen. For instance, the Indian government launched the ‘National Hydrogen Mission’ in 2021, under which special focus would be given to ensure the growth of the green hydrogen sector, as this would help the country achieve its clean energy generation targets.
On the 75th Independence Day, the Prime Minister of India reiterated that the country is fully committed to the goal of achieving 450 Gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy by 2030. The prime minister also emphasized the role green hydrogen will play in facilitating the transition of the country to a clean economy in the coming years. As per the IEA, the stock of FCEVs almost doubled to 25,210 units at the end of 2019, with nearly 12,350 new vehicles sold, which was more than double the 5,800 purchased in 2018, majorly because of such government efforts.
Furthermore, to leverage the lucrative opportunity created by the implementation of supportive government policies, several automobile companies, such as Volkswagen AG, Hyundai Motor Company, Toyota Motor Corporation, Honda Motor Company Ltd., and BMW AG, are investing heavily in the development of FCEVs. There were three models of hydrogen cars available in certain markets as of 2019 — the Toyota Mirai (2014), Hyundai Nexo (2018), and Honda Clarity (2016).
Apart from being heavily used as an alternative fuel to petrol (gasoline) and diesel in vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells are also being increasingly used in the space sector. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce finds that the global space industry’s revenue grew from $175 billion in 2005 to around $385 billion in 2017. This shows that the demand for liquid hydrogen has risen continuously over the past few years, as it is the key rocket fuel along with liquid oxygen.
Apart from the mushrooming deployment of FCEVs, the growing use of hydrogen in the oil and gas industry is contributing toward its booming demand around the world. The petrochemical industry is expected to grow massively in the coming years, with naphtha, ethane, and LPG together accounting for nearly 70% of the projected surge in the oil product demand till 2026, as per the IEA. In this industry, the gas is used to remove sulfur from crude oil during the production of gasoline and convert long-chain hydrocarbons to shorter-chain variants.
In this regard, the enactment of strict environmental regulations for limiting the sulfur content in oil has considerably augmented the consumption of hydrogen in refineries. For example, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) responsible for regulating shipping, announced on January 1, 2020, that the cap on the sulfur content in fuel would be reduced from 3.5% mass by mass (m/m) to 0.5%. Since both sour and heavy crude oil require extensive processing, their soaring production is pushing up the demand for the gas.
Over the last few years, the availability of arable land has decreased significantly on account of various climatic, environmental, and human factors. According to the World Bank, arable land area per person reduced to 0.184 hectares in 2018 from 0.196 hectares in 2011. This has consequently compelled farmers to switch to advanced farming methods and tools, such as nitrogen- or ammonia (NH3)-based fertilizers, which are produced by combining hydrogen and nitrogen, in order to improve the crop yield.
Besides, the ballooning global population is pushing up the requirement for greater agricultural productivity, which is further fueling the need for ammonia-based fertilizers and augmenting the demand for hydrogen. As per the predictions of the UN, the global population will surge by 2 billion over the next thirty years and reach 9.7 billion by 2050.
Hydrogen storage has always been the one major hurdle that has prevented the extensive use of the gas, thus making the transition toward a global hydrogen-driven economy difficult. However, with the development of effective storage technologies in recent years — material-based and physical — various industries are now witnessing a sharp surge in their hydrogen consumption.
Between them, the popularity of the physical method is predicted to be higher in the coming years. The storage of the gas in its physical form makes it suitable for use in several applications, such as metalworking, ammonia production, transportation, and crude oil refining. With the expansion of multiple end-use industries, such as petroleum and transportation, the demand for this storage method will rise exponentially.
Hydrogen is stored in cylinders, in merchant/bulk, and on-board and on-site, among which cylinders are used the most. The gas is shipped in cylinders for the generation of stationary and portable power and transportation purposes. Among these, it is majorly being used for producing electricity on the utility scale through an electrochemical reaction within large fuel cells. Although the share of this fuel in energy generation is minuscule, it is a promising alternative to the conventional coal, oil, and natural gas, as its processing in a fuel cell to create electricity releases only water and heat, both of which have additional uses.
Across the globe, the demand for hydrogen was observed to be the highest in Asia-Pacific (APAC) during the last few years, and this trend will continue in the upcoming years. This is ascribed to the existence of numerous chemical and petrochemical organizations, particularly in Japan, South Korea, India, and China. According to the European Chemical Industry Council, in 2018, China contributed the highest revenue, of $1,341 billion, to the global chemical industry. Since hydrogen is extensively used in this industry, the large-scale production of chemicals is propelling its demand in the country.
Hence, with the growing need for fuel-cell vehicles, expanding chemical industry, and surging oil and gas exploration and production, the demand for hydrogen will continue to skyrocket all over the world.