Green hydrogen was little more than a pipe dream just a few years ago. Now, the technology has emerged as an important tool in the global sustainability toolkit. One new development is especially significant in that it demonstrates how the world’s top oil-producing nations can help meet the growing demand for emission-free aircraft fuel.
Hydrogen is an abundant, ubiquitous industrial feedstock that has many applications in addition to its use as a zero-emission fuel.
Unfortunately, hydrogen does not exist on its own. It must be extracted from hydrogen-rich resources. Currently, the primary source for the global hydrogen supply is fossil natural gas.
So, although hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, it certainly is not an effective pathway for decarbonization.
That’s where “green” hydrogen comes in. Green hydrogen refers to hydrogen extracted from renewable or reclaimed resources. The main focus of attention in recent years has been on electrolysis, which involves “splitting” hydrogen from water by applying an electrical current.
As a decarbonization strategy, electrolysis makes no sense if the electricity is sourced from fossil power plants. However, the rise of low-cost renewable energy has changed the game — and it just so happens that the coastal oil-producing nations of the Middle East are ripe with water, wind and solar energy.
In the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi has been an early experimenter in the green hydrogen trend through the Masdar energy company and Masdar City urban innovation center. Masdar has already been investing in wind and solar developments to meet skyrocketing demand for clean power in key wind and solar markets including Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. That makes green hydrogen a next logical step.
The new project pairs the Abu Dhabi Department of Energy and Masdar in a memorandum of understanding with the airline companies Etihad Airways and Lufthansa Group, with Khalifa University of Science and Technology, Siemens Energy and Japan’s Marubeni Corporation joining on the research, technology, and financial side.
The collaborative effort will build a demonstration-scale green hydrogen plant at Masdar City to produce fuel for ground transportation and shipping as well as aircraft.
Of particular interest is the broader network of high-stakes collaborators working to transition Abu Dhabi into the green hydrogen economy.
“The project represents the first concrete step under a strategic partnership between Mubadala Investment Company, the sole shareholder of Masdar, and Siemens Energy, intended to accelerate green hydrogen capabilities in Abu Dhabi,” Masdar explains, adding that the effort includes the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the Abu Dhabi holding company ADQ as founding members of the Abu Dhabi Hydrogen Alliance.
That type of networking is also at work in the U.S., where the Department of Energy has been supporting a portfolio of renewable hydrogen projects. U.S. manufacturers are also organizing under the Western State Hydrogen Alliance and other consortia.
In other signs of a growing network in the U.S., last fall Mitsubishi spearheaded the launch of the Western Green Hydrogen Initiative, which includes National Association of State Energy Officials, the Western Interstate Energy Board and the Green Hydrogen Coalition (GHC).
Abu Dhabi’s exploitation of its wind and solar resources for green hydrogen also involves deploying its existing fossil infrastructure for green hydrogen. In that regard, it is similar to the dynamic at work in the U.S. For example, the University of Texas is studying how its home state can become the “backbone” of the hydrogen economy in the U.S., with a focus on integrating its state’s vast wind and solar resources into its oil and gas infrastructure.
The partnerships between public sector, private sector, and academic stakeholders are bound to grow as the need for rapid decarbonization becomes more urgent.
That is especially true in the aircraft industry, where the “flight shaming” trend has upped the motivation for commercial customers to cut down on air travel.
Travel will recover after the COVID-19 pandemic eases, but global businesses have already learned how to operate while cutting travel to a bare minimum. To the extent that those lessons learned ripple into the post-pandemic world, airlines will have to work harder to entice commercial customers back on board.
JetBlue and other airlines already have established carbon offsets as a means of countering flight-shaming. A zero-emission fuel would provide them with a new marketing angle that bears directly on their operations.
It won’t be easy. “The decarbonization of aviation remains the most important challenge facing the industry and will require significant investments in efficiency and innovation with a focus on developing technologies to switch to sustainable fuel sources to allow the UAE achieve its CORSIA targets,” explains Tony Douglas, the CEO of Etihad Aviation Group.
Nevertheless, the involvement of top legacy fossil stakeholders indicates that powerful new momentum is building toward the goal of global decarbonization.