National Physical Laboratory

The future of hydrogen in our energy system

From the way we power and heat our homes, to the fuel we use in our vehicles, the energy sources we depend on are a major contributor to carbon emissions in UK – which is damaging to our health and the environment.

Hydrogen car

International climate agreements and domestic policies require the UK to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. This is putting increasing pressure on decision makers to find a cost-effective and scalable way to decarbonise our energy sector.

Hydrogen offers significant potential to help transform the UK's energy mix, by providing an alternative to conventional fossil fuels, such as natural gas, and facilitating the transition to a low-carbon economy.

How can hydrogen be produced?

Currently, the most common method of hydrogen production is steam methane reformation (SMR), where high temperature steam is reacted with natural gas to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide (CO) and CO2.

The caveat here is to become carbon neutral and compliant with UK emission reduction targets. This form of production will require the use of carbon capture and storage technology – a technology which is still being developed.

The most viable technology for producing carbon neutral hydrogen is electrolysis. This is the process of using electricity to split water (H2O) into its fundamental components – hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) – and would be carbon neutral if renewable electricity is the power source.

This process could also address the issue of renewable intermittency that the UK faces. If we can harness surplus power generation and use it to produce hydrogen, it can be stored for use during peak demand, which is often when generation is at its lowest.

What can hydrogen be used for?

The use of hydrogen as an energy source could enable the UK to utilise existing infrastructure and help to reduce the costs associated with electrification of the energy system – an attractive option which would require little behavioural change from the end user.

For example, the UK heating network is dependent on gas as an energy source, with 84% of homes heated by non-renewable natural gas. Due to its gaseous form, hydrogen could be pumped into the gas grid and combusted to provide heat.

It could also be stored within a high-pressure tank or salt cavern for on-demand usage, and therefore offers an opportunity for the UK to reduce dependence on imported fuel by providing a domestic alternative.

Hydrogen can also be used as the fuel to power fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which have a similar range and refuelling time to conventional petrol and diesel cars. The benefit of using fuel cell technology with hydrogen is that the only emission from the vehicle tailpipe is water vapour – eradicating harmful air pollution and carbon emissions.

But is it realistic?

The UK already has much of the infrastructure, renewables strength and research base needed to support a hydrogen economy, and is continuing to develop new storage and end use technologies. Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently begun pumping hydrogen into their grid, and Japan has used this clean energy source for years.

NPL is home to London's first public electrolyser-powered hydrogen refuelling station, and the hydrogen purity laboratory, which is ensuring the quality of the hydrogen produced at such refuelling stations, meets international standards. Find out more about the work NPL is doing around hydrogen purity.

NPL has also developed a range of novel in situ measurement techniques, modelling tools and standard test methods to support commercialisation of polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells and electrolysers. These techniques are helping industry improve the performance and lifetime of these technologies. Find out more about the work NPL is doing in fuel cells and electrolysers.

NPL produced a report outlining the significant role hydrogen could play in the UK's decarbonisation efforts and will continue to develop our knowledge and expertise, to help position the UK at the cutting edge of research and technology development for the growth of the hydrogen industry internationally.

An infographic summarising the measurement challenges identified throughout the report

Find out more about NPL's work on hydrogen

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Last Updated: 13 Mar 2018
Created: 12 Mar 2018


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