An energy source that can power everything from mass transport by land, sea and air to heavy industry, that does no harm to the environment and is practically limitless sounds like an ecologist's Utopian dream.
But it's no dream - and the revolution is already underway. It's name? Hydrogen - the most abundant element in the universe.
Industrialists the world over say the gas can become a crucial part of the global energy mix - and faster than many people might imagine. "I think the real test is when will the man in the street starts to recognise that hydrogen is part of the energy mix," Ronnie Chalmers, vice president of the French industrial gases supplier Air Liquide's Africa, Middle East and India hub, tells The National. "I think that will come before 2030, at different places and different times around the world."
The Hydrogen Council says that by 2030 the gas will be a significant energy player with millions of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road. Launched at the World Economic Forum 2017, in Davos, Hydrogen Council founders include Air Liquide, Toyota, BMW, Alstom and Airbus, among other big names.
The council believes the hydrogen sector will carry similar financial weight to the hydrocarbons industry with revenues worth some $2.5 trillion annually by 2050 and jobs for more than 30 million people globally. By comparison, the oil and gas market had total revenues of $1.97tn worldwide in 2017, according to BusinessWire's Global Oil & Gas Industry Guide 2013-2017.
The council's view may be a little optimistic, Robin Mills, the chief executive of the consultancy Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis, tells The National. "Oil today is a $2.2tn business, gas say $0.5tn, coal $0.8tn," he says. "So $2.5tn for hydrogen looks like a stretch. But it could certainly be a very major business."
The mass implementation of hydrogen as a transport power source is already taking place. Hydrogen fuel cells power electric forklift trucks around the world and helps businesses such as Amazon, Ikea and others increase their production hours and reduce operating costs. The fuel cells do not need recharging like traditional battery-powered forklifts - hydrogen powered forklifts can be fully fuelled in under five minutes.
Hydrogen has been used in industry for decades such as in refining, treating metals and food processing but it is the acceleration of renewable energy that has spurred the multinationals' interest - and Air Liquide sees the UAE as an ideal destination to further the hydrogen cause.
As a pioneer in renewable energy, particularly solar, the Emirates is committed to developing its green energy economy and, in part, this is why Air Liquide recently undertook a study in collaboration with Al Futtaim Toyota - which distributes Toyota's hydrogen-powered Mirai vehicle in the UAE - and Khalifa University to look at strategies to grow the hydrogen industry here.
This month, the first solar-driven hydrogen electrolysis facility in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region was inaugurated in Dubai.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy and chairman of the Expo 2020 Dubai Higher Committee, broke ground on the project, a collaboration between Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, Expo 2020 Dubai and Siemens. It will be built at Dewa’s outdoor testing facilities in the Research and Development Centre at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai, state media agency WAM reported.
Mr Chalmers adds that the UAE has all the right ambitions regarding decarbonisation in the economy and "it was easy for us to say to Al Futtaim, 'You have the same problem as us, you have the product, you need somebody to build fuel stations, we need somebody to market the cars'".
Speaking at a press event in December to showcase hydrogen mass transport potential, Saud Abbasi, managing director of Al Futtaim Toyota, said: "In our next chapter, and in line with the UAE Vision 2021, we believe that Mirai [hydrogen fuel cell-electric vehicle] and any other FCEV in the future, once adopted on a large national scale, can actively help the UAE in its march towards serious climate action thanks to the many practical benefits it presents such as zero pollutants, zero behavioural change, long mileage and minimal hydrogen filling time of three to five minutes.”
So far, Al Futtaim in partnership with Air Liquide has opened a hydrogen station, the first in the Middle East, at Al Badia, Dubai Festival City. A second station is set to start construction this year in Masdar City, in collaboration with Adnoc, Masdar and Al Futtaim.
Air Liquide is also pushing the use of renewables as a source of hydrogen.
"The ultimate goal is to have 100 per cent green hydrogen - the definition of green hydrogen is that it comes from green energy. This could be solar, wind, biogas," says Olivier Boucat, head of Air Liquide's H2 Mobility unit.
The company admits it is not at that stage yet. Today, Air Liquide uses a mix of green and "brown" hydrogen - where methane sourced from coal or natural gas is processed to release hydrogen - producing a lot of CO2 as a byproduct.
But it aims to rapidly ramp up its share of green hydrogen produced by using water electrolysis and renewable sources of electricity, such as solar in the UAE, which does not emit CO2. In January, Air Liquide announced it had acquired an 18.6 per cent stake in Canadian company Hydrogenics Corporation for $20 million, which makes electrolysis hydrogen production equipment and fuel cells.
Electrolysis works by passing electricity through water which splits it into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is collected, transported and stored either in gas form or as a liquid super-chilled to minus 253°C - which, incidentally, is the form in which it is used to power space rockets. The oxygen can be used in other industrial processes.
To power a car, for example, the hydrogen runs from the fuel tank into a fuel cell, where it re-combines with oxygen from the air, producing energy as electricity, rather than explosive energy as in an internal combustion engine. The resulting electricity is released in a controlled manner to power the engine, the same kind of engine an electric battery car uses.
But there is another significant difference between an electric battery vehicle and an FCEV.
"The heavier the car is the more energy it consumes," says Pascal Schvester, Air Liquide's director of the Middle East and India Industrial Merchant unit. A high-end electric vehicle (EV) today needs about 700kg of battery, which is maybe a third of the weight of the vehicle, he says. "That is something you do not have with a hydrogen fuel cell car - in which you have, say, 6kg of hydrogen."
Currently, however, green hydrogen is prohibitively expensive to produce. But as countries move away from hydrocarbons as a fuel, economies of scale will bring the price down. "At the moment it's better to have a large facility and then transport the hydrogen as a gas but when the volumes get big enough it will be better to transport as a liquid," says Mr Boucat.
"This is happening already in California; we are just commissioning the first liquid hydrogen plant to provide liquid hydrogen to a station."
With construction to start later this year, at a cost to build of around $150m, the plant will have the capacity to generate nearly 30 tonnes of hydrogen per day - enough to fuel 35,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles. The facility is designed to accelerate the deployment of new hydrogen FCEVs - cars and fleet vehicles such as taxis, trucks and buses and trams, as is happening in Europe.
However, hydrogen's cost as a fuel is unlikely to reach commercial parity with petrol, diesel or electric battery power, although price is not likely to be the determining factor for its uptake, according to Mr Mills. "I think hydrogen will always be more expensive than petrol or diesel, but the reasons for its adoption would be that it's zero-carbon, clean at the point of use, and (potentially) indefinitely renewable. The question is whether it can compete cost-wise with electric vehicles which are improving rapidly.
"Hydrogen's at quite an immature stage, so this really depends on how much support it gets to build scale and bring down costs."
Mr Mills says that the large-scale vehicle sector is most suited to hydrogen as a transport fuel. "Probably it will have to find its role in long-distance, heavy-duty transport like trucks, rail, shipping and perhaps aviation," he says.
However, the more down-to-earth fleet vehicle sector is Air Liquide's main focus in the UAE. "We're not targeting the super cars like Jeremy Clarkson might drive on Top Gear," says Mr Boucat, but he says "the aeroplane would be the last goal for us".
Air Liquide's Mr Schvester also points out that regarding fleets "you don't need to have a massive network of hydrogen filling stations because in this case you are dealing with vehicles that are commuting from one place to the other on a fixed basis" so fuelling stations can be centralised.
Globally, Japan is generally seen as the leader so far in hydrogen take-up. The country's Basic Hydrogen Strategy, released in December, 2017, reiterated its commitment to pioneer the world’s first “Hydrogen Society”. The strategy primarily aims to achieve cost parity of hydrogen with competing fuels, such as petrol in transport and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in power generation.
"By 2030 Japan will start to import hydrogen in liquid form to produce energy for various applications in the country," says Mr Boucat. "When we reach that point we are at a very large scale."
Last month, South Korea announced a major investment plan to go the same way. By 2040, the country aims to increase the cumulative total of fuel cell vehicles to 6.2 million, raise the number of hydrogen refuelling stations to 1,200 (from just 14 today) and also boost the supply of power-generating fuel cells.
Through these measures, the government hopes to create 420,000 jobs and $38.35 billion in value added to the economy each year by 2040.
China now invests about 100bn yuan a year (Dh54.09bn) in hydrogen energy, according to Professor Zong Qiang Mao of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology, who adds that the country has the capacity to produce about 170,000 FCEVs per year. It's likely to become a huge market. "I predict that in about 10 years we will also be the largest market in the world for hydrogen energy," Mr Zong told cH2ange, an organisation dedicated to promoting the hydrogen economy and which is supported by Air Liquide.
Germany in September opened its 50th hydrogen filling station. With the ramp-up of the number of fuel cell vehicles, another 300 hydrogen refuelling stations are planned over the next two or three years.
In Paris, the Societe du Taxi Electrique Parisien has a total of 100 hydrogen-powered vehicles in its fleet, and is aiming to have 600 such vehicles by 2020. In the UK, meanwhile, the government announced last year police cars and taxis will be among nearly 200 new hydrogen powered vehicles as part of a project that has won £8.8m (Dh42.4m) in funding from the Department for Transport to increase the number of hydrogen cars on the roads.
Air Liquide believes such developments are just the start.
"I think within a few years we'll see more [hydrogen-powered] trains, taxis, buses and trucks and the man in the street will think, 'ah yes, it's just another hydrogen vehicle,'" says Mr Chalmers.
"We got used to LNG trucks, we're getting used to EVs and next will be hydrogen."