It has been long established that to mitigate the effects of climate change, we will need to transition to an energy system with fewer greenhouse gas emissions and more sustainable energy production and consumption.
Over 120 countries have announced their intention to bring emissions to zero by 2050.
There is great interest in hydrogen. Not surprisingly, since hydrogen electrolyzed from renewable energy offers numerous solutions to the challenges of the energy transition.
Hydrogen fuel is a zero carbon fuel burned with oxygen.
It can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications.
Amid the current hype, there is little discussion about when the technology can realistically become commercially viable, or the best ways it can be used to cut emissions.
Although, it is the most abundant element in the universe, rarely is it freely available. It must be unlocked from water (H2O) or fossil fuels such as methane (CH4), then compressed for transport and use.
According to the Asian Development Bank, more than 95 per cent of the world’s hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels such as natural gas via the steam methane reforming process.
The advantages of hydrogen fuel cells as one of the best renewable energy sources are evident, however there are still a number of challenges to overcome to realise the full potential of hydrogen as a key enabler for a future decarbonised energy system.
It should be noted that despite extensive promotion and governmental support from world leaders, including former US President Barack Obama, the use as an alternative energy source is not yet widespread.
This delay in adoption has largely been due to technology readiness and its associated high cost.
Hydrogen fuel cells need investment to be developed to the point where they become a genuinely viable energy source. This will also require the political will to invest the time and money into development in order to improve and mature the technology.
The properties and safety challenges related to the use of hydrogen are very different from those of conventional fuels.
In 2018, German passengers boarded the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains.
Incidentally, in 1937, a hydrogen-filled German passenger airship caught fire and was destroyed as it attempted to dock in New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board, 36 died.
Africa can be a key part of the hydrogen value chain. As a starting point, hydrogen fuel cells rely on platinum, an important resource for South Africa, which holds 80% of the world’s platinum and where potentially the world’s biggest platinum mine is soon to be developed.
Vincent Oldenbroek of the African Hydrogen Partnership told me that with technology getting cheaper, it will be easier for African countries to adopt.
“The technology is getting cheaper. In Nigeria, it is quite new but I believe it should be seen as solar was 10 years ago. Once the benefits can be seen, they can adapt quickly,” he added.
In 2020, Federal Research Minister Anja Karlickzek and her Nigerien counterpart Yahouza Sadissoun agreed on measures to expand the hydrogen strategic partnership into West Africa.
This hydrogen partnership will work through the joint research centre – the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL) – which was established by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2012 as part of the German Federal Government’s Africa Strategy.
Karliczek explained that Germany sees Africa as a continent of opportunity and green hydrogen as the oil of tomorrow. “I am therefore very pleased that we laid the foundation for a hydrogen partnership today.
It holds great opportunities for everyone involved: for West Africa, for Europe and for Germany.”
“We launched an atlas of potentials on green hydrogen in West Africa and expert teams have started their work in the 15 ECOWAS countries., ” she said.
Hydrogen can potentially provide a solution to a number of issues and is now being seen as a technology that may be relevant to countries with low electricity grid penetration.
Is Africa ready?