The Quest for Clean Hydrogen: Harnessing the Power of the Sun

In July 2023, southern Europe experienced an unprecedented heat wave with temperatures soaring to around 45°C. However, there was a place in Spain that got even hotter, reaching a scorching 1,400°C, yet it didn’t make headlines. This place was the Plataforma Solar de Almería, a test site in Almería province where mirrors focus the abundant sunlight onto a tiny spot on a 43-meter tower. This concentrated solar energy has caught the attention of EU researchers who believe it could hold the key to generating renewable hydrogen, a clean source of power that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Potential of Renewable Hydrogen

Hydrogen has the potential to revolutionize economies worldwide by offering a clean alternative to traditional fuels. When burned, hydrogen produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions, making it an ideal solution for industries that are hard to decarbonize, such as steel and aviation. Renewable energy, including clean hydrogen, is a fundamental part of the REPowerEU strategy, which aims to reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels, and the EU’s “Green Deal” to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. However, the current methods of producing hydrogen often rely on energy sources like natural gas and coal, which contribute to CO2 emissions and counteract the environmental benefits of hydrogen.

The Challenge of Clean Hydrogen Production

Electrolysis, a process that uses an electrical current to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, offers a relatively easy way to produce clean hydrogen. However, the uptake of this method has been slow due to cost barriers. Only 4% of global hydrogen production at the end of 2021 came from electrolysis, and merely 1% was produced through electrolysis powered by renewable energy. To achieve widespread adoption of clean hydrogen, Europe needs to explore alternative methods that utilize the sun’s power.

Turning to the Sun for Clean Hydrogen

EU researchers are now focusing on solar rays and the heat they generate as a potential solution for clean hydrogen production. The Plataforma Solar de Almería, with its concentrated solar technologies, offers an existing infrastructure that could be harnessed to produce renewable hydrogen almost as a bonus, without the need for additional electricity. Souzana Lorentzou, a chemical engineer at the Center for Research & Technology Hellas in Thessaloniki, Greece, is leading the HYDROSOL-beyond project, which aims to utilize the extreme heat of the solar tower to initiate chemical processes for clean hydrogen production. Lorentzou acknowledges that there are still technological challenges to overcome before large-scale deployment can occur, but she remains optimistic about the future.

Marcel Boerrigter, principal researcher at Leitat Technological Center in Barcelona, Spain, is also working on a project called GH2, which utilizes both the heat and light of the sun to create clean hydrogen. This technology is still in the laboratory stage and requires further development and streamlining before it can be scaled up for commercial use. Boerrigter estimates that it may take another 10 to 20 years before this technology reaches the commercial stage, but he emphasizes the importance of taking action to combat climate change. By reducing CO2 emissions, creating green hydrogen, and minimizing electricity consumption, the quest for clean hydrogen is a step towards a sustainable future.

Both the HYDROSOL-beyond and GH2 projects highlight the role of research, especially publicly funded projects, in tackling technological challenges and taking risks that commercial businesses often avoid. Although the technology has been under development for about 20 years, further fine-tuning and optimization are required to ensure durability and cost-effectiveness. Lorentzou emphasizes the need for continued technological advancements and identifies the reactor design as a current priority. Boerrigter confirms that the progress may seem slow, but considering the early stage of development, the researchers are moving quickly towards their goals.

Achieving Climate Goals through Clean Hydrogen

The potential of clean hydrogen generated from solar heat and rays cannot be understated. It presents an opportunity to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change. By harnessing the power of the sun, researchers are paving the way for a sustainable future. As the technology continues to advance and overcome barriers, clean hydrogen could become a transformative force in energy production, enabling the transition away from fossil fuels and towards a greener and more environmentally friendly world.

The quest for clean hydrogen is a complex journey that requires innovation, investment, and perseverance. Through utilizing solar rays and heat, EU researchers are pushing the boundaries of clean energy production. While there are still technological challenges to overcome, the potential benefits of clean hydrogen in combating climate change and creating a sustainable future are immense. As the world looks for alternative energy sources, the sun’s power may prove to be our greatest ally in the transition to a greener and more sustainable world.


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