What is hydrogen? Written in Chinese characters, hydrogen means “the source of water.” Hydrogen was the first element created after the Big Bang, and makes up 73% of all matter in the universe. It is the lightest substance on earth, and is present in water, which covers about 70% of the Earth’s surface. However, on Earth, hydrogen does not exist as a solitary element because of its low density—that is to say, on Earth hydrogen naturally bonds to different elements to form a molecule. Because hydrogen does not exist by itself, it must be extracted.
Depending on which extraction method is used, hydrogen can be classified into two general categories. The first type of extraction is called “Renewable Hydrogen” (or RH₂). It is the type we advocate for at the nonprofit Renewable Hydrogen Network. It is the sustainable energy source obtained when hydrogen is extracted from water using only renewable energy.
The second type of extraction, known as “Non-Renewable Hydrogen” (or Non-RH₂), is the energy source and system supported by both governments and much of the private sector. It is based on hydrogen extracted using fossil fuels, or created as a byproduct in steel mills—which is why it is also known as ‘byproduct hydrogen.’ Current plans to extract hydrogen from water through the use of nuclear energy also fall under Non-RH₂. Hydrogen extracted from fossil fuels contributes to global warming, and is not environmentally sustainable.
The popular home energy system ENE-FARM, currently installed in over 120,000 homes in Japan, is a Non-RH₂ energy system. ENE-FARM is a fuel cell system that extracts hydrogen from propane (C₃H₈) and methane (CH₄) in order to generate electricity. According to the road map compiled by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the government aims to have similar stationary fuel cells installed in 1.4 million residential homes by 2020, and 5.3 million residences by 2030.
Large multinational corporations such as Google, FedEx, and Walmart also use fuel cells, which generate energy by extracting hydrogen from natural gas. In Japan, the implementation of similar fuel cells is mainly promoted by the Softbank Corporation. These fuel cells also leverage Non-RH₂ technology.
To coincide with the release and roll out of fuel cell vehicles, 100 hydrogen stations have been planned domestically in Japan, 26 of which were up and running as of September 2015. There are over 180 of these hydrogen stations around the world, most of which rely on a hydrogen-extraction method that uses fossil fuels.
Let’s Shift to an RH₂ Society!
If hydrogen is truly so desirable, it would seem that our water-rich earth is a treasure trove of renewable energy resources. To make use of this seemingly endless supply of water, we only need to shift our focus away from the hydrogen found in fossil fuels, and instead concentrate on hydrogen that is present in the water all around us! If we were to accomplish this, rivers would become nature’s pipelines, and rainfall and even morning dew would become sources of energy.
Our current urban built-environment makes use of several kinds of utility lines, including electric, gas, and water. If we were able to utilize renewable energy and the hydrogen present in water as our fuel sources for electricity generation, there may come a time when many of these utility lines will no longer be necessary.
When we consider the two extraction methods for hydrogen, there is little doubt as to which is the better option. On one hand, we have hydrogen extracted from water through the use of renewable energy sources such as the wind outside our windows, the sunlight all around us, or the waves crashing along the world’s countless coastlines. On the other, we have hydrogen extracted via complex processes utilizing a limited supply of resources found in remote areas that must be transported over many miles. There is no question as to which of these methods is more sustainable.