Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed on Sunday directed Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to explore opportunities in hydrogen, with the ambition to position the UAE as a world leader in exploiting this ultimate green fuel.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces said the UAE has the chance to capitalise on the emerging global market for hydrogen by making use of Adnoc’s existing infrastructure, as well as Abu Dhabi’s vast reserves of natural gas.
Adnoc already produces hydrogen for its downstream operations and after this mandate will explore the potential to help meet the demand for hydrogen and ammonia derived from natural gas.
Here we look at why hydrogen is the fuel of the future:
Why is hydrogen so special?
Hydrogen is an energy source like no other. It is by far the most common element in the universe and when burnt releases nothing but heat and water. Hydrogen can also be used to generate clean electricity directly in battery-like devices called fuel cells.
In contrast, burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases such carbon dioxide, along with noxious pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen.
So why has it taken so long to exploit?
Despite its cosmic abundance, most hydrogen on Earth is bonded to other atoms – such as carbon in natural gas and oxygen in water – and freeing it requires energy. So hydrogen is a clean fuel only if clean methods are used to extract it.
Until now, 95 per cent of it has been produced from fossil fuels using high pressures and temperatures. Known as brown or grey hydrogen, it is anything but clean.
Another big problem is that hydrogen is a dilute source of energy, and needs compressing – another energy-intensive challenge. However, the UAE has been at the forefront of tackling these problems using clean, renewable sources of energy.
How is the UAE making hydrogen energy viable?
By focusing on so-called blue and green hydrogen projects. The former involves extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels such as natural gas, but making the process cleaner by capturing the carbon dioxide, which is either stored or put to use. Adnoc, the UAE’s biggest energy producer, has huge carbon capture facilities and is now planning to expand them.
The ultimate goal, however, is green hydrogen, where renewable sources such as solar energy are used to extract the gas from water using electrolysis.
The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai is on course to be the first solar-powered hydrogen plant in the Middle East. The megawatt-scale project will use electricity from solar panels to split hydrogen from oxygen in water and use it to generate clean power.
The generation of green hydrogen also offers a solution to the problem of storing renewable energy for times of low supply, such as after dark or on windless days.
But is hydrogen not incredibly dangerous?
The promise of hydrogen energy has long been blighted by images of the Hindenberg airship disaster in 1937 and the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986. Yet while hydrogen is highly flammable and easily ignited, industry has decades of experience in handling it safely, and experts insist it poses no greater safety risk than petrol.
The UAE has already addressed such concerns, last year becoming the first Middle East country to draw up safety regulations for hydrogen-powered transport.
When will we see hydrogen-powered vehicles?
They are already on the roads, albeit in modest numbers. Dubai opened the first hydrogen filling station in the Middle East in October 2017 and it serves vehicles powered by fuel cells, a key part of the hydrogen energy revolution.
Invented by the Welsh chemist William Grove almost 180 years ago, the fuel cell generates electricity by stripping electrons off hydrogen gas, producing water as its only waste product.
With transport being responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and blamed for life-threatening pollution, the wider use of fuel cells is one of the biggest attractions of the switch to hydrogen. Abu Dhabi Police has already announced plans to convert some of its vehicle fleet to fuel cells in the coming years.
Will hydrogen help the UAE meet its Paris Agreement obligations?
The UAE became the first Middle Eastern country to ratify the UN Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. This committed the Emirates to helping to keep global average temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But some experts say green hydrogen alone will not be enough to achieve this.
They point out that while blue hydrogen derived from fossil fuels may be less attractive, it remains the most cost-effective source, and could support the switch to hydrogen while green hydrogen becomes more competitive. At present, green hydrogen is six times more expensive than oil as a source of energy.
What other benefits could come from the push for hydrogen?
According to the International Energy Agency, there is now “unprecedented political and business momentum” behind hydrogen, driven by the pressure to replace fossil fuels.
A recent Bank of America report estimated hydrogen-based energy generation, transport and home heating could generate $2.5 trillion of direct revenue, plus $11tn in infrastructure potential globally over the next 30 years.
China, Japan, South Korea and the EU are already investing huge sums in hydrogen energy. Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson included hydrogen in his £12 billion ($15.93bn) plan for a “green industrial revolution”.
There is thus a huge market awaiting those nations who can lead the world in supplying hydrogen and the technology to exploit it.
Saudi Arabia has already revealed plans to build the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, powered by four gigawatts of wind and solar power. With today’s announcement, the UAE has shown it also intends to be taken seriously in the race to exploit the ultimate green fuel.
Robert Matthews is visiting professor of science at Aston University, Birmingham, UK