A very expensive new infrastructure requiring a great deal of energy to build, run and maintain, and with a relatively short lifespan.

From refrigerating hydrogen to minus 253 oC, through large-scale storage in multi-layered vacuum-insulated tanks, via highly-specialized pipelines, to a variety of short-term storage vessels that are also highly specialized… This is the most complicated energy infrastructure yet devised.

Key industries need highly-compressed hydrogen…

The steel and cement industry need highly-concentrated energy because they use energy at an extremely high rate (i.e. power in terms of kilowatts). For that reason, they need highly compressed hydrogen: hydrogen at normal temperature and pressure (20 oC and 1 atmosphere) has an energy per liter of 0.013 MJ. That is less than half the energy per liter of methane at normal temperature and pressure (0.036 MJ).

Liquid fuels have the advantage that much more can be pumped into a process per second than in the gas phase: that’s what we need in industry. Cooled and compressed to liquid, hydrogen can reach almost 10 MJ per liter, but liquid methane is more than three times higher, at 35 MJ per liter. So in terms of the volume needed to supply the same amount of energy to thermal processes in industry: we need more than three times the hydrogen volume compared with methane.

Liquefied hydrogen (at minus 253 oC) leaks at much higher percentages than gaseous hydrogen, which, for example, can be used directly to make e-fuels. Estimates for leakage of liquid H2 vary greatly. Taking ranges from a recent review, a best-case scenario could be 4.1% loss in the chain from storage to use; the worst-case could be as high as 39%. Could the truth be somewhere in between? i.e. 23% loss?

Liquid hydrogen is particularly challenging…

An additional disadvantage is the service lifespan of the hydrogen infrastructure. This is considerably lower than that of the carbon-based fuels infrastructure:

Hydrogen squeezes through the smallest cracks and escapes from the storage/distribution network; it even pushes its way into metal! Yes, hydrogen-induced brittleness (embrittlement) of steel is a known phenomenon. And it leads to the faster „ageing“ of vessels and pipes that contain hydrogen.

Harnessing hydrogen’s power in more convenient ways…

So, can we harness hydrogen’s massive potential without these problems? Yes, and that is what biology has done for 3.5 billion years, but not by storing and distributing it as a gas or liquid… We can produce very high-energy-density energy carriers in ways analogous (not identical) to biology. That means using similar net-zero material cycles with carbon compounds. To find out more, click here.

Further reading:

> Academic review presenting ranges of hydrogen leakage from the main parts of the storage and distribution infrastructure
> Hydrogen embrittlement: list of summaries of review and research papers
> Life cycle assessment of hydrogen storage tanks, giving anticipated lifespans in years
> Life expectancy of long-term large-scale liquid hydrogen storage tanks

Copyright Andrew Moore 2024