Hydrogen and hydrogen-based, low carbon liquid fuels (such as ammonia) are essential for the UK to reach net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050. There is growing consensus of the role of hydrogen in the decarbonisation of many sectors of the UK economy, and is exemplified by the publication of the UK hydrogen strategy.
Convergence of UK academic strength, policy need, technology maturity and business readiness in the UK means the time is ripe to secure:
- significant global leadership
- hydrogen as a component of our future net-zero energy system, utilising the technology to contribute to our decarbonisation commitments.
There are a number of production routes in existence which have been shown to be able to produce hydrogen whilst emitting low or no levels of greenhouse gases. However, many of these techniques still require further research and development:
- to make them cost effective
- improve efficiencies
- other challenges to making them commercially viable.
There may also be new technologies which could advance low and zero-emission hydrogen production.
Hydrogen is not a ‘silver bullet’ to our energy needs or emissions reduction challenges. It is likely to be used in combination with electrification and other energy sources in a future energy system in the UK. It will be part of a suite of energy solutions which will help the UK reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Therefore, it is important that we understand how to use and integrate hydrogen alongside other energy technologies, and ensure they work in harmony together to meet the UK’s future energy needs.
The report (June 2019) from the Committee for Climate Change states:
The UK should set and vigorously pursue an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to ‘net zero’ by 2050, ending the UK’s contribution to global warming within 30 years.
This target is only credible if policy to reduce emissions ramps up significantly.
This will require adoption of gas and liquid energy forms to meet energy needs that cannot be met through electrification across multiple sectors, and hydrogen in particular is highlighted by the report. In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.
In any future scenario three things will be critical:
- the UK’s future energy system must include extensive electrification to enable a wide-spread transition to clean energy sources
- solutions that decarbonise energy needs that cannot be readily met through electrification that rely on gas or liquid fuels (for example, industrial processes and domestic heating)
- the ability to capture, store and utilise CO2 from essential processes that cannot be decarbonised.
Growth of a new hydrogen economy is required as a solution for our energy needs that are not readily compatible with electrification. Hydrogen can be used as:
- fuel for heat, fuel for transport
- as a form of energy storage
- a feedstock into industrial processes and could be distributed with only minor modifications to current gas infrastructures.
As an alternative fuel it will also increase the resilience of the UK’s energy system.
A three-pronged approach to hydrogen and its alternative fuels is essential to:
- discover solutions to the problems we cannot yet solve
- develop those solutions that we have discovered but are not yet ready for deployment
- deploy those solutions that are ready whilst researching solutions to the challenges that emerge during deployment.
Independent evidence and validation for investing in hydrogen
The following independent evidence and validation make the case for UK investment now.
Hydrogen is identified as one of the three pathways to 2050 being presented in the UK’s Clean Growth Strategy, with a potential hydrogen demand of roughly 700 TWh by 2050.
The Royal Society published a policy briefing on green hydrogen production in 2018, in response to the UK government’s request to assess the different technological options of large-scale hydrogen production and their economic viabilities. It highlights that hydrogen has the potential to decarbonise domestic industry, transport and heat.
The recent EU Hydrogen Strategy (2020), published alongside the EU Strategy for Energy System Integration, recognises that these sectors (domestic, industry, transport and heat) are the lead markets for hydrogen production.
Although it also has the potential to contribute to wider sectors, for example through its use in land transport or as a feedstock for chemical production such as ammonia, methanol and kerosene for the shipping, agriculture, steel and aviation sectors respectively. The demand for hydrogen in the energy sector will grow substantially towards 2050, provided the following are in place:
- fuel cell technologies
- environmental regulations
- effective policies
- new business models.
The Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has set out the UK’s capacity to support both green and blue hydrogen production. This twin track approach is set out in the UK hydrogen strategy.
It is recognised that we will need to build blue capacity now while developing capacity for deployment of green hydrogen in the longer term.
This opportunity solely focuses on the ‘green’ or non-greenhouse gas emitting methods of hydrogen production related to this twin-track approach.
Hydrogen is a cross-cutting low-carbon form of energy, whose benefits are best realised when looking both within and across sectors noting that innovations in one part of the value chain (for example end-use technologies) have implications for the rest of the chain, implying the need for an integrated approach.
UKRI’s investment in hydrogen
To date, UKRI has invested in hydrogen primarily through the Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Supergen Hub (H2FC). The hub has been instrumental in addressing key challenges facing the hydrogen and fuel cell sector. Thus, has provided the necessary platform and focus for the development of potential subsequent hydrogen research centres which will be able to support the community at the necessary scale to help the UK reach its net-zero emissions targets by 2050.
The UKRI Energy Programme has identified hydrogen as a priority and sees huge opportunity in investment at scale to support the growth of a new hydrogen economy in the UK through a coordinated national effort.
Alongside this call for research proposals EPSRC has launched a call for two hydrogen coordinators who will develop a consortium and programme of research for respective hydrogen research centres in 2022, subject to additional funding, and the identified programme requirements. These potential centres are expected to tackle:
- cross-cutting research challenges in hydrogen production, storage and distribution including cost, efficiencies, safety and materials to name a few
- the whole systems integration of hydrogen in a future energy system.
This call for hydrogen production and integration research proposals will create a platform of research and outcomes in key priority areas on which the centres will be able to build upon in low carbon hydrogen production, and its whole systems integration into the energy system.
Hydrogen production through steam-methane reforming and CCS is not included as part of this call, but forms of zero greenhouse gas emitting hydrogen production methods are included.
In particular, research related to the production of hydrogen through electrolysis powered by renewable energy (also known as green hydrogen) is encouraged.
EPSRC is fully committed to develop and promote responsible innovation. Research has the ability to not only produce understanding, knowledge and value, but also unintended:
- ethical dilemmas
- social transformations.
We recognise that we have a duty of care to promote approaches to responsible innovation that will initiate ongoing reflection about the potential ethical and societal implications of the research that we sponsor and to encourage our research community to do likewise. Therefore applicants are expected to work within the EPSRC Framework for Responsible Innovation.
Applicants planning to include international collaborators on their proposal should visit Trusted Research for information and advice on how to get the most out of international collaboration whilst protecting intellectual property, sensitive research and personal information.