Hydrogen; it’s properties and its potential in future energy mixes. 23 Nov 18.00

Thu 23rd November 2017 at 18.00 - 20.30

Hydrogen; it’s properties and its potential in future energy mixes. 23 Nov 18.00

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Given the worldwide concern about the damaging affects of carbon-based sources of energy, whether for the industry, transport or the home, the Club was anticipating an interesting talk from Stuart McKay.  His talk Hydrogen: its Properties and its Potential in Future Energy Mixes fully met those expectations.

Stuart reported that the Scottish government’s Energy Strategy Division has the significant objective of ensuring the phasing out of carbon-based energy sources by 2032.  Stuart leads a small team examining the contribution that hydrogen can make to this objective, and as a means of maximising Scotland’s energy resources. The great advantage of using hydrogen is that it has no carbon footprint: it is an entirely emission-free source of energy.

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but (and there’s always a “but”) it generally comes attached to other elements or compounds. So there is an initial challenge to find cost-effective ways of separating hydrogen from those other elements to allow its use as an energy source. There are, however, ways of achieving this, for example by taking natural gas and separating out the hydrogen, though this requires a carbon capture process to neutralise or reduce the carbon by-products.  Alternatively, electrolysis can be used to separate hydrogen from water.  Where there are adequate sources of electricity from renewable energy, for example from wind turbines, wave power or solar energy, electrolysis has no carbon by-products, so producing hydrogen by this means is an entirely green process.

In terms of the applications for hydrogen, there are several potential avenues to explore.  At the simplest level, it can be added to natural gas, probably up to 20 per cent by volume, for heating and cooking using existing boilers and cookers.  The great advantage of this application (or even the use of 100 per cent hydrogen in due course) is that the existing plastic gas mains piping is suitable for transmission.  For use of 100 per cent hydrogen, existing boilers and cookers would, however, have to be replaced.

Looking more broadly, hydrogen is already being used to power vehicles.  In these instances, the predominant technology is for hydrogen cells to be used to produce electricity.  This is then used to power vehicles using existing electrical motor technology, but with the great advantage of avoiding the necessity for very heavy batteries.  Current tests have shown that cars powered in this way can have a range of some 400 miles between refuelling, significantly greater than for existing battery-powered vehicles.  Both Aberdeen and Fife councils already have commercial vehicles, including buses and bin lorries, powered in this way.  Looking worldwide, Toyota, in Japan, has made a major commitment to the development of this technology.  Other projects in process include an aspiration for all vehicles at the 2020 Olympics to be hydrogen powered.  On an even bolder scale, Scottish Gas Networks is exploring the possibility of a demonstration village being powered by hydrogen. 

Members were keen to explore this intriguing subject further, with President –Elect John Kilby having to curtail the number of questions.  Speaker’s Host Ranald Shepherd reflected on members’ obvious interest when congratulating Stuart on his presentation.  It illustrated vividly, he said, the importance of exploring new sources of energy to ensure the protection of the world for future generations.