Hydrogen’s moment is here at last

October 7, 2021

Hydrogen has been controversial ever since the tragedy of the Hindenburg, an airship filled with it that went down in flames in 1937. Boosters say that the gas is a low-carbon miracle which can power cars and homes. The hydrogen economy, they hope, will redraw the energy map. Sceptics note that several hydrogen investment drives since the 1970s have ended in tears as the gas’s shortcomings were exposed. As we explain, the reality lies in between. Hydrogen technologies could eliminate perhaps a tenth of today’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. That is a sliver—but, considering the scale of the energy transition, a crucial and lucrative one.

Hydrogen is not a primary source of energy like oil or coal. It is best thought of as an energy carrier, akin to electricity, and as a means of storage, like a battery. It has to be manufactured. Low-carbon energy sources such as renewables and nuclear power can be used to separate water (H2O) into its constituents of oxygen and hydrogen. This is inefficient and expensive, but costs are falling.

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