It’s a Clean Fuel, But Hydrogen Can Intensify Methane’s Damaging Effects, Study Finds

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Hydrogen has been touted as a sustainable alternative to carbon-based fossil fuels, but new research shows it may not be the solution it’s been built up to be.

On the heels of the IPCC’s recent report urging for a drop in emissions across the board, a new study finds hydrogen may be just as problematic as the fossil fuels it’s used to replace.

According to a new U.K. government-funded study, hydrogen has the potential to create warming effects that are 11 times as damaging as CO2 emissions.

The study identified problems with fugitive hydrogen emissions, that when released into the atmosphere, has the potential to interact with other gases and produce warming effects. The new study says the potential for the warming effects is twice previous estimates.

Methane Risks

Of particular concern is the effect on methane, a gas that’s more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. In its latest report, the IPCC called for a 30 percent drop in methane emissions.

When hydrogen interacts with atmospheric methane, it extends the life of the potent gas. It’s a damaging gas but has a shorter lifecycle than CO2. But the use of hydrogen could make it as dangerous, if not more so, than carbon if allowed to linger.

Courtesy Alexander Popov on Unsplash

Efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere are well underway, but there are far fewer cleanup agents for methane or hydrogen, the researchers note.

Hydrogen also increases concentrations of tropospheric ozone and stratospheric water vapor, which increases something called “radiative forcing” that can cause temperature rises.

There are other risks with hydrogen, too. The researchers say that because hydrogen is smaller and more flammable than methane, it is itself a climate-warming substance.

Utility Risks

Utility companies have been eyeing hydrogen as a sustainable energy source, but because the gas has the potential to cause explosions, it poses problems. Gas utility companies looking to switch to hydrogen would require system upgrades for distribution to make sure hydrogen can’t accumulate. Its smaller molecule size makes that difficult.

The same issue could affect household appliances that are optimized for natural gas, currently. At present, most couldn’t handle more than 20 percent hydrogen, which means manufacturers would need to develop new models across furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and dryers, as well as industrial equipment. Appliances would need replaced before utility companies could increase hydrogen in their blends beyond 20 percent. Any appliances not replaced would be at risk of likely explosion.

Clean Fuel Source

Despite the risks, the researchers aren’t advocating to abandon the fuel alternative. It could help to reduce emissions in cars and boats as well as planes, among other fossil fuel-dependent industries.

Courtesy Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The report explains that “the increase in equivalent CO2 emissions based on 1 percent and 10 percent H2 leakage rate offsets approximately 0.4 and 4 percent of the total equivalent CO2 emission reductions, respectively,” so even assuming the worst leakage scenario, it’s still an enormous improvement.

“Whilst the benefits from equivalent CO2 emission reductions significantly outweigh the disbenefits arising from H2 leakage,” it continues, “they clearly demonstrate the importance of controlling H2 leakage within a hydrogen economy.”

Lead image courtesy Jose Lebron on Unsplash


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