Hydrogen is everywhere. From deep inside stars to the water here on Earth, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. And it’s shaping up to play an important role in our energy future.
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is a lower-emission energy carrier that has huge potential when it comes to decarbonizing heavy-emitting sectors – like those that make steel, cement, fuels and petrochemicals, which are difficult to electrify. Demand is growing – in fact, in 2020 the world doubled its capacity to produce lower-carbon hydrogen and the International Energy Agency expects demand to increase another 44% by 2030.
How do you make hydrogen?
Although hydrogen is the most abundant element, it is rarely found in pure form. It needs to be manufactured. This can be done with a lower carbon footprint than conventional fuels. Hydrogen can be produced from various energy sources, including natural gas with CCS (often known as ‘blue’ hydrogen) and renewables (often known as ‘green’ hydrogen).
ExxonMobil is pursuing several hydrogen opportunities. We’re planning a new hydrogen plant at our Baytown, Texas, facility, which could produce up to 860 thousand tonnes of hydrogen annually – that’s about six times larger than typical hydrogen plants that exist today. By switching to hydrogen, the existing facility could reduce its emissions by up to 30% compared to current operations.
In Europe, we are a founding member of The Solent Cluster, the first major decarbonization initiative that would substantially reduce CO2 emissions from industry, transport and households across the Solent Region and Southern England. This collaborative project is exploring solutions including CCS, hydrogen and biofuels for applications across multiple sectors including hard-to-abate industries such as aviation, marine and power generation.
Here are seven hydrogen facts to know when it comes to its role in the energy transition and a lower-emissions future.
1. Hydrogen is the most plentiful atom in the universe.
Hydrogen is the first element on the periodic table and the most abundant, making up roughly 90% of atoms in the universe. It’s also considered the simplest element, as it only contains one proton and one electron.
2. Hydrogen is versatile.
While hydrogen is primarily used to create products like gasoline, lubricants and petrochemical products from refined oil today, it may help significantly reduce emissions in some sectors, such as industrial and residential heating, power generation, and heavy-duty vehicles. Hydrogen could also be used as a transportation fuel for light-duty and commercial vehicles.
3. Hydrogen produces no emissions at point-of-use.
Hydrogen does not emit any greenhouse gases at its point-of-use, making it an attractive lower-emission energy carrier.
4. Hydrogen is described in many colours.
Although hydrogen is colourless, the different ways to produce hydrogen are often categorized by colour. Most hydrogen produced today is ‘grey’ and created by splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with the CO2 released into the atmosphere.
Blue hydrogen uses the same process, but the CO2 is captured and stored using carbon capture and storage technology. Green hydrogen is produced when renewable energy is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Other ‘colours’ of hydrogen include pink, turquoise and yellow, among others.
5. Hydrogen is essential to meeting society’s net-zero goals.
Achieving the Paris Agreement’s climate goals will require the broad deployment of several lower-emission technologies and fuel sources, like hydrogen. Existing natural gas transmission infrastructure has the potential to be used for hydrogen. Lower-carbon hydrogen could meet 10% of global energy needs under the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 scenario.
Ultimately, hydrogen may help provide energy security, as well as play an important role in the energy transition.
6. Hydrogen demand is set to double by 2030.
Global hydrogen demand is forecasted to more than double by 2030, with substantial increases from the power, industrial and transportation sectors. We estimate the size of the hydrogen market globally could be more than $1.5 trillion by 2050.
7. Clear and consistent policy is essential to scaling up hydrogen.
While some of the infrastructure for hydrogen is already in place and demand is rising, clear and consistent government policies are still needed to accelerate hydrogen’s deployment — particularly at a pace necessary to reach societal net-zero goals.