Each year, mid-career professionals from around the world come to Cornell as part of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, building on their skills as leaders in public service within agriculture, rural development and natural resources management. In this article, Dmytro Zinkevych, a 2021-22 Humphrey Fellow and Managing Director of SUNSAY Energy in Ukraine dives into the use of hydrogen as an innovative strategy for renewable energy. While at Cornell, Dmytro expanded on his expertise in the renewable energy sector, learning more about the use of hydrogen as an innovative source of green energy.
One of the most eventful periods of my life ended in June 2022 — I finished my Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at Cornell University, where I studied Environment and Climate Change. Analyzing this year, I can confidently say that I have fulfilled my main task to expand my knowledge and gain significant expertise in the Clean and Renewable Energy and Carbon Neutrality field.
I am the founder and CEO of the leading Solar Engineering company in Ukraine, where my team develops and installs solar power stations for residential buildings, businesses, and communities. Thanks to my Humphrey-year at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), I became convinced of the importance of green energy. While at Cornell, I chose a second focus to further my professional development — green hydrogen. During my Professional Affiliation period, a practicum component of the Humphrey Fellowship, I had the opportunity to partner with leaders and pioneers in the green hydrogen industry, such as Nel Hydrogen, Plug Power, and Standard Hydrogen Corporation. Coming back to my country, I want to apply all the knowledge I've gained to Ukraine's transition to clean renewable energy, which will help it become a more independent and economically strong.
It’s no secret to all that our planet is in a bit of danger. Some of us work to prevent that process using well-known methods like the installation of solar panels or wind farms, while others try to find different diverse practices. One of those new practices includes the utilization of hydrogen, an element that you might know something about already. However, we bet you’ve never heard that it has turned out to be the most efficient energy component to date. So, let’s begin our journey by getting to know more about this chemical compound.
Humanity started to use hydrogen somewhat a hundred years ago. It is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. Despite that fact, it is not so easy to extract. Hydrogen is light and active gas that quickly percolates and dissolves in other gasses, liquid, and solid materials.
It mostly comes from fossil fuels, so its production endangers the planet. It also could come from biomass and water. Coal gasification and natural gas reforming are the ones most harmful to natural methods that are used to produce hydrogen. Now we are able to store, transport, and use this chemical compound for a wide variety of needs.
Hydrogen use in the 21st century
Today, we use hydrogen in many different ways. When you travel somewhere, look through your window, wear clothes, or choose your wallpaper color, you literally deal with hydrogen-based goods. Those are some of the ways hydrogen is used in your daily life:
- production of steel, glass, clothing, and even food
- production of fertilizers that help in overcoming hunger
- production of methanol that helps in creating plastic, paints, and car parts (it also serves as a fuel for the pharmaceutical and transport industries)
- production of petroleum as one of the main refining process components
As you can see, hydrogen is widely used in modern metallurgical, chemical, and light industries. It is essential to our lives. There is a rare good that you can find that does not have hydrogen involved in some of the other parts of its production. However, the harsh production process makes one wonder how we can change it because the wide-range reality of its use is not going anywhere anytime soon.
“Impure” hydrogen production
For decades of hydrogen production, CO₂ emissions were not considered as a threat. They participate greatly in climate change, global warming specifically. Today the world produces about 90 million tons of hydrogen annually (2021), 96% of which comes from minerals such as gas or coal. When extracting 1 kg of hydrogen from fossils, 8-9 kg of CO₂ is produced, which as a byproduct is simply released in the air. Therefore, every year, more than 800 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere during the production process. 800 million tons! That is more than a country like Germany, the world’s 6th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses releases into the atmosphere in a year!
Additionally, fossil fuels supply 74% of the world’s power generation, accounting for 31.5 Gt of CO₂ emissions. Meaning, that hydrogen production only makes the greenhouse gasses problem even worse. This process definitely requires change, and producing hydrogen in a greener way might just be the answer to both problems.
How can we change the process?
The carbon footprint from hydrogen production grows every year. The human population is growing as well. Our food and goods production changes proportionally. And for that, we need to produce more of everything, year by year, making hydrogen extraction increase 2-2,5 times by 2030, only 8 years from now. As you can see, we don’t have much time before this problem gets out of hand.
The situation started to shift only 15-20 years ago when climate change activists and international organizations approached the problem. Scientists and entrepreneurs worked together on a solution that could change the whole industry. Their main idea is to make other hydrogen production methods cheaper. One of them is to extract hydrogen using electrolysis of water molecules. The byproduct of the process is oxygen rather than carbon. Solar and wind power can provide clean energy for operations and serve as a solid base for carbon-free hydrogen production.
Despite the green energy production process working out perfectly, we still have issues with energy storage. At this point, we are not fossil-fuel independent. This is where hydrogen comes in handy. Again. And this time as an energy carrier. The thing is, you can transform electricity into hydrogen and back at any time whenever you want. We literally can store electricity in the form of hydrogen. And since it is gas, it can be stored in a variety of ways, including but not limited to compressed gas, liquid gas, or cryo-compressed.
Green hydrogen might be the exact link between the modern world and its carbon-free future. As Bill Gates said, hydrogen is a “Swiss Army Knife of decarbonization.” Green hydrogen, though an old word, is a new prospect in renewable energy sources. Let’s spend some time getting to know it, as its role in our everyday lives is going to get bigger every step of the way.
If you want to peek at a more scientific approach to green hydrogen production, including the process and the disadvantages of using fossil fuels, please see this article.
- “Hydrogen Production” Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production
- Cullen, A. (2022). “Germany’s Carbon Emissions Rise in Setback for Climate Goals.” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-15/germany-s-carbon-emissions-rise-in-setback-for-climate-goals?fbclid=IwAR2yl2-tdaOTm5ECQUjQb-k4qPyq-IcjrtDtOcDTMzwhbpvfCbUcoEt0DoI
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