Is it finally time for hydrogen?

Commentary:  The idea of producing "green" hydrogen using renewable energies is gaining increased traction worldwide. The practically inexhaustible source of renewable energy can potentially replace all current non-renewable energy sources

Photo: imago images/Alexander Limbach via Reuters Connect

After decades of debates with a high level of 'ideological pollution', also partly thanks to the paradoxical impetus provided by the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of promoting an economic renaissance - strongly characterized not only by technological innovation but also by a strong, concrete and visible commitment to environmental protection - has finally been placed at the top of the list of government priorities for all world's most industrialized countries.

At the last G20 Summit on sustainable development, Europe, China and the United States agreed to undertake joint and coordinated efforts to achieve the goal of gradually "decarbonizing" the planet by committing themselves to cutting the use of fossil fuels in energy production in favor of renewable energy from air, sun and sea.

The "Green Deal", which the European Union has been planning on paper for years, is about to become a reality since it was included in the "recovery plan", the huge financial commitment destined to help the European countries’ economies to emerge from the quicksand of the pandemic in the coming years.

As many as 47 billion euros are earmarked for Italy to be spent on research and exploitation of non-polluting energy sources that will free us from the use of fossil fuels and enable us to grow without harming the ecosystem and the climate balance.

After decades of extraordinary economic growth, which has nevertheless cost a very high price in terms of environmental pollution, China has decided to further develop the sustainable growth initiatives undertaken as part of the 13th five-year plan - concrete initiatives that have enabled it to cut the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by 12%, with the 14th five-year plan for 2020/2025, an ambitious but achievable project to create an 'ecological civilization'.

In this regard, during a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) dedicated to the "collective study on the theme of the achievement of ecological civilization", President Xi Jinping stated bluntly: "we must consider the reduction of carbon emissions as the strategic direction of the 14th Five-Year Plan to promote the reduction of pollution and carbon emissions and to pursue the transformation of the green economic and social development model to achieve the goal of qualitative improvement of the ecological environment".

The fact that these are not mere formulas and words of a clever politician who has sensed and caught wind of "modernity" is demonstrated by the real and incisive commitment that the Chinese leadership has made in the field of renewable energy, thanks to the personal involvement of the young and dynamic Minister of Energy Resources, Lu Hao, who wants to make Shenzhen a pilot center for research and development in the production of energy from the sea through the National Ocean Technology Centre.

It was precisely in Shenzhen that the Marine Economy Expo was held earlier this year, showcasing advances in wave energy research and production and addressing the use of hydrogen as a potential source of clean energy.

Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe.

However, it is not available in nature in its pure gaseous form, but “lives” only when bound with other elements, such as oxygen in water (two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, H2O) and methane (one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, CH4).

What can hydrogen be useful for once it is detached from its companion elements in water and gas? 

The answer is simple: it is a light gas, lighter than air, with no toxic characteristics, which, if properly extracted and stored, can provide energy for heating houses, propelling cars, trains, planes and all other means of transport, and can potentially replace all current non-renewable energy sources, such as coal or oil, to provide clean energy for all industrial production processes.

However, separating hydrogen from oxygen and carbon is not a simple, low-cost process: firstly, its extraction from methane, so as to obtain the so-called “grey hydrogen”, requires huge amounts of traditional energy and is therefore a source of collateral greenhouse gases and pollution. 

In order to produce “clean” hydrogen, instead, the so-called “green hydrogen” must be extracted from water by separating it from oxygen using electrolysis. However, electrolysis has the disadvantage that it requires large amounts of electricity to work - hence, in order to produce clean energy from hydrogen, we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of having to consume large amounts of electricity at high cost and with equally high CO2 emissions.

This paradox has held back the production of industrial hydrogen, until the idea of creating a “green” hydrogen production cycle using renewable energies such as wind, solar or marine energy has begun to emerge.

With the use of this particular process, a virtuous and very simple cycle is created: hydrogen is extracted from sea water and the energy produced by wave motion and sea currents is used to produce the energy needed for water electrolysis.

Hydrogen is a practically inexhaustible source of renewable energy, and its production on an industrial scale could solve the "dialectic" between development and the environment once and for all.

In the summer of last year, the European Union had already planned an initial implementation of the "Green Deal" with a 470 billion euro investment project called the "hydrogen energy strategy", which aims to create the conditions to enable all European partners to produce "green" hydrogen through electrolysis in view of achieving - by the end of 2024 - the annual production of at least one million tons of hydrogen in the gaseous state, with the widespread use of electrolysis equipment with a single power of 100 megawatts.

As mentioned above, the “recovery plan” for Italy envisages an allocation of 47 billion euros for research and development in renewable energies and particularly in the field of “green” energy production, as recently stated by the Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani.

Other European countries are also betting on the future of hydrogen.

Spain has already earmarked 1.5 billion euros from its national budget for national hydrogen production over the next two years, while Portugal wants to invest a large part of the 186 billion euros allocated to it by the “recovery plan” in projects dedicated to the production of low-cost “green” hydrogen.

Italy is at the forefront of research into marine energy production equipment.

The Polytechnic University of Turin - with the support of ENI, CDP, Fincantieri and Terna - has developed a cutting-edge technology for producing energy from wave motion.

This is the Inertial Sea Wave Energy Converter (ISWEC), a machine housed inside a 15-metre-long hull which - thanks to a system of gyroscopes and sensors - is able to produce 250 megawatts of “green” energy a year, occupying a marine area of just 150 square meters, without any negative impact on the ecosystem.

Italy can rightly claim to be at the forefront of research and production of energy from sea wave motion, and can therefore rightly take the lead of those who plan to produce “green” hydrogen using the energy generated by wave motion for the energy needed for electrolysis: a virtuous cycle that is potentially the protagonist of a future industrial revolution.

This explains the interest and attention paid by China's Ministry of Energy Resources and its Minister, Lu Hao, to Italy and to some of its companies.

Minister Lu Hao has turned the city of Shenzhen into what is defined as a “global ocean central city”, which - also thanks to a joint venture, promoted by the International World Group, between Italy's Eldor and China's National Ocean Technology Centre - is set to become the world's pilot center for the production of clean energy from sea waves.

In a not too distant future, with the smart support of all Italian institutions - starting with the Ministry for Ecological Transition - together with other European partners and probably with the support, albeit suspicious, of the United States led by President Biden - Italy and China will be able to launch and develop the revolution of the "blue economy", the economy that starts from the sea, the latest fashion in terms of smart, clean and sustainable energy production.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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