Asia-Pacific Biotech News

Advancing Research Needs to Enable a Hydrogen Economy

Climate change has been one of the constant challenges faced by the world today. World leaders and organisations are facing increasing pressure to fulfil global agreements on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 to mitigate the crisis.

On that account, hydrogen has as emerged as a new source of energy that could help achieve net-zero-emission economies for heating, power generation, public and private transportation, cogeneration, and energy-intensive industries.

by Chow Woai Sheng

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges that humanity is facing today. In developed countries, world leaders have adopted decarbonisation strategies, from replacing coal in the fuel mix with natural gas to maximising solar deployment. However, drawing from the recent UN Climate Conference COP27 outcome,¹ the progress of the clean energy transition has been slow since the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Today, low-carbon technologies have become the next frontier of government efforts. A solution—right at the top of the periodic table—is hydrogen (H2), which only emits water (H2O), not greenhouse gases, when combusted. It can be produced using low-carbon methods and can be sourced around the world.

The increasing global investments from countries and companies to advance hydrogen technologies, as McKinsey and Company report,² reflect the growing speed toward a hydrogen economy. In 2022, the Singapore government announced its National Hydrogen Strategy, where hydrogen could potentially contribute up to 50% of its nation’s power needs by 2050.³

Although hydrogen alone may not solve climate change, introducing low-carbon technologies can enhance energy security and resilience across the world.


Fuel of the Future

Hydrogen can be an important pathway for decarbonising as a new source of electricity that can help stabilise price and power grid volatility, as it can be used even when the sun stops shining or gas supplies are disrupted. This clean energy infrastructure can also reshape the global maritime and aviation sectors by producing sustainable marine and aviation fuels.

A 3D Hydrogen molecular model. Photo Credit: AdobeStock

Its foundation is seen as part of the critical enablers of achieving net-zero-emission economies for heating, power generation, public and private transportation, cogeneration, and energy-intensive industries. As a result, more than 680 large-scale hydrogen projects, valued at US$240 million, have been announced worldwide that focus on transport, infrastructure, production, and industrial use.

Depending on production methods, hydrogen can be categorised as grey, blue, or green. Notably, green hydrogen obtained from renewable energies is more promising as a sustainable energy carrier due to its climate-neutral manner.

Globally, the public and private sectors are becoming more aware of the need to understand the quality of hydrogen in measurements and measurement capabilities, hydrogen as an energy vector and its potential to support new applications such as turbines or boilers, as well as the steel and ceramics industries’ need to decarbonise.


Scaling up with Biotechnology

To achieve a low-carbon economy, understanding hydrogen quality and its measurements are key to developing the most robust and reliable hydrogen solutions. Within the research fields of hydrogen, the United Kingdom (UK) National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which has partnered with Agilent, is accelerating its research while highlighting the current measurement challenges facing the hydrogen industry.

A female scientist at one of Agilent’s research lab. Photo Credit: Agilent

As outlined in the NPL energy transition report, scientists like Dr. Thomas Bacquart use a combination of innovative instruments for hydrogen quality measurements at scale, such as three gas chromatography (GC) systems with various detectors and a pulsed discharge helium ionisation detector (PDHID) to accurately measure several parameters.

Some of the highest priority issues range from material development for fuel cells and electrolysers to impact assessments of added odorant to hydrogen to aid in leak detection. As hydrogen refuelling stations are expanding quickly and increasing hydrogen production, other new research topics have emerged around hydrogen gas networks and purification, hydrogen quality for industrial use, and new hydrogen production.


Enabling Good Hydrogen Quality

Even as the hydrogen economy accelerates, good hydrogen quality is restricted due to the lack of standards and analytical methods, and the complexity of sample and measurement capabilities. Particularly, hydrogen fuel cells are highly flammable if not handled properly, and the key concern here is that hydrogen fires are invisible. The NPL’s current anchor is hydrogen for transport, as the impact of contaminants on a fuel cell electric vehicle can be critical.

Through recent advancements in analytical instrument technologies, the National Metrology Institute can now develop its hydrogen technology standards at an industrial level, build national primary measurement capabilities within the hydrogen industry, and provide the latest research breakthroughs in hydrogen quality for fuel cells.

Furthermore, clean energy is rapidly shifting from hypothetical debates to practical projects. If all the measurement challenges were to be addressed by the NPL, the UK could potentially host a world-leading hydrogen industry to move society toward a more sustainable way of life.


The Next Generation of Clean Energy

China produces and consumes the most hydrogen in the world, with an annual use of more than 24 million metric tons. Beijing Guanghe Technology (BGT), founded by its CEO Dr Cong Wang, has emerged to develop the next generation of renewable energy in Plasmonic Carbon-Neutral-Fuel Artificial Photosynthesis producing hydrogen, methane, and oxygen.

The research company, which is partnering with Agilent on the mechanical elements, strives to industrialise one of the most cutting-edge technologies with the intent to provide the world with new energy sources, reduce carbon emissions, and create new economic growth opportunities. Its current analytical methods include using micro GC for real-time gas concentration measurements to understand the effects of synthetic processes, compositions, and other factors on the underlined catalysts. This could achieve important results for future kinetic analysis.

A Hydrogen storage tank. Photo Credit: AdobeStock

The process behind artificial photosynthesis is a complex one. Still, this research could see increasing benefit of the field among scientific communities. It could potentially contribute toward research advancements to achieve a more sustainable and circular economy, as well as create a new energy revolution at a lower cost.


Partnering for Transformative Change

Tackling hydrogen measurement challenges and improving hydrogen technology and regulations for net-zero success would require partnerships between policymakers, academics, and industries throughout the entire value chain. By adopting academic-industry collaboration strategies to advance green technology research, the hydrogen market could be more transparent and inclusive to realize the full potential of the hydrogen economy for both developed and developing countries.

This way of thinking saw the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE) being formed in 2003, as an international, intergovernmental, collaborative initiative. Its purpose was to serve as a mechanism to share information among partners to enable the organisation and implementation of international research, development, demonstration, and deployment activities that are related to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

Two good links, particularly collaborations between Agilent, NPL in the UK, and BGT in China, were highlighted with strategies involving scaling up R&D, technological training and development, and active information sharing of a collective roadmap to the global audience. Pursuing international collaborations could also enable global hydrogen supply chains as countries undertake long-term land and infrastructure planning.


Anticipation for the Future

As more countries support these efforts and set their national strategies, the cost of a hydrogen economy and its barriers to entry are reducing. However, the world is now facing a renewed challenge of a skills gap within the renewable energy sector that will see public and private sectors exploring talent and skills development in hydrogen, to ultimately transition towards climate neutrality.

As hydrogen technology evolves, new measurement challenges will continue to arise. There is an underlying need to support this area of research and gain a complete understanding of clean hydrogen production and measurement value chains for a successful energy transition. [APBN]

About the Author

Chow Woai Sheng, Vice President of Global Instrument Manufacturing & Singapore General Manager at Agilent Technologies.

Chow leads a team of more than 2,000 skilled manufacturing employees in the instrument manufacturing unit as well as scientists, engineers, and employees across 17 Agilent sites globally, including Singapore. He was previously the VP/GM for global supply chain and has extensive technical, engineering, commercial experience in the order fulfilment and R&D operations.