Hydrogen and science fiction, a long history

In 1875, the engineer Cyrus Smith, the main character in Jules Verne’s book The mysterious island, announced the advent of the marvelous world of hydrogen. “Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be used as fuel, that the hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it will provide an inexhaustible source of light and heat of an intensity that coal cannot have. One day the holds of steamers and the tenders of locomotives, instead of coal, will be charged with these two compressed gases, which will burn in hearths with an enormous calorific power. inhabited, it will supply the needs of its inhabitants, and they will never lack either light or heat, any more than they will lack the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms. I therefore believe that when the coal deposits are exhausted , we will heat and heat ourselves with water. Water is the coal of the future.”

An element discovered in 1766

This gas, the most abundant element in the universe, was discovered in 1766 by the chemist Cavendish and then baptized “hydrogen” by Lavoisier. It was known already long before, nicknamed “oil of vitriol” or “explosive air”. The hydrogen resource was a dream in the 19th century and still does in the 21st. Much closer to us than Jules Verne, Jeremy Rifkin, one of the great figures of ecology, announced in 2002 in a book the advent of the hydrogen economy. He saw it not just as a way to get rid of oil, but as “people’s energy”. As it is present everywhere, in water, everyone could turn into a local energy producer. The Hydronet, this global hydrogen distribution infrastructure that he imagined in the second half of the century, should make it possible to “decentralize and democratize energy”, and to consider “another globalization, open to all”.

Two decades after Jeremy Rifkin’s book

The Hydronet is still a pipe dream and, two decades after Jeremy Rifkin’s book, the contours of the hydrogen economy are still unclear. But we can, without too much risk of being wrong, and taking into account the human and financial resources committed all over the world, say that it will exist. And what’s more, it is still a dream come true in 2022. Texts describing the world of hydrogen to come have been collected in a book published in February and entitled Touching Hydrogen Future. A Tour Around the Globe (Touching the future of hydrogen. A world tour).

The book explicitly claims to be science fiction with “Jules Verne-style stories about the role of hydrogen in the 2030s and 2040s”. But if it is fiction, the technological references are those of very real projects, vehicles, cities, factories and strategies. Here are some excerpts.

Italy 2040: desalination plants

My mind goes back to Italy’s energy situation in 2040. With these electrical interconnections and the availability of a significant increase in stable energy supply from the French border, Turin and Milan have gone through a series of sensible changes to support significant decarbonisation of the heating and transport sectors, thanks to the increase in the production and use of green hydrogen. The increased interconnection with France also allowed the installation of large seawater desalination plants on the Tyrrhenian coast around Genoa.

(photo: personal collection)

Russia 2040: Saint Petersburg, city of turquoise hydrogen

Saint Petersburg has become in the last two decades the first city in the world to have a turquoise hydrogen production plant, based on Russia’s proprietary technology of pyrolysis of methane in molten metals and plasma pyrolysis. . These technologies are now being licensed to producers around the world to provide low-carbon hydrogen from natural gas or biomethane. Building on nuclear and aerospace engineering centers, which have always been plentiful in the city, St. Petersburg is now home to a major hub of education, R&D and engineering. More than 500 students from all over the world graduate each year from H2University in the technical and commercial disciplines of the hydrogen economy.

(photos: personal collection)

United Arab Emirates: the OPEH* meeting of September 14, 2040

It was a pleasantly warm day in Neom, September 14, 2040, just over 50°C. Ziad Al Shammary was here for the action, not the holidays, and his unmanned aircraft was the first of the swarm. The followers buzzed almost silently over the misty coastal plain as they delivered the constellation of ministers and robot assistants to the floating hotel. The fifth annual meeting of OPEH was in session. Ziad, who had just been named his country’s second Hydrogen Minister, looked more relaxed than he was as he jumped out of the fuel cell plane and waved to his colleagues and rivals . Some seemed a little dismissive of the young man whose abilities they had not yet assessed. He exchanged a few words with the representatives of Chile, Iran, Russia, Libya and Namibia. He muttered polite expressions and asked a couple of naïve questions to disarm them. He who judges the last judges the best…

* Organization of Hydrogen Exporting Countries.

(photos: personal collection)

Netherlands 2029: a nuclear reactor on an artificial island

The structure of the energy island was inspired by a Dutch architect who became world famous for having designed the first 200 MW electrolyser plant in Rotterdam. Some of the architect’s early work floated like a memory before his eyes. Below, the giant structure of the offshore green hydrogen plant shimmered with green LED lights signaling its “Green Hydrogen Taxonomy” label. He remembered reading that the 15 billion euro project had just been commissioned and included a small modular nuclear reactor, allowing it to continue to use electrolysers when the wind died down, thus reducing the costs of the whole of the energy system.

(photos: personal collection)

Chile 2040: Downtown Santiago

I go down the subway steps and I can already hear the high-pitched whine of passing trains. I walk down to the platform and take a look at the updated metro map and see that two new lines have been added in the last year. The constant supply of hydrogen and renewable energy has fueled the metro’s expansion in recent years, from 100 km of track to 175 km. Even better, the government continues to lower ticket prices because it’s so affordable to run the trains, and it also helps get cars off the streets…

The light in the wagon is flickering, just a faulty bulb, but it reminds me of the daily blackouts that used to happen. Those days are a thing of the past in Chile thanks to back-up hydrogen fuel cells. Whenever there is excess renewable energy that is not sold directly to the electricity market or used, it is stored in hydrogen tanks. With every building in Santiago topped with solar panels, this “surplus” problem is more common than you might think. I remember three years ago, when we were hit by one of the biggest storms of the last decade, a significant part of the renewable energy infrastructure was damaged, solar panels and wind turbines alike. Hydrogen reserves kept the country functioning during the reconstruction period.

(photos: personal collection)

Namibia 2030: Africa’s hydrogen hub

– But how did Namibia secure the largest hydrogen projects in Africa, with sand dunes and the nation known for having the least rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa? asks Aina – Doesn’t green hydrogen require a significant amount of water?

– It’s interesting, I answer him. This is a nation where the ocean meets the dunes. It shares borders with Zambia and Angola to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Namibians enjoy about 300 days of sunshine a year.

It is reliable solar power, plus strong capacity for wind farms. This “Land of the Brave”, as this nation is often called, has developed a deep-water port through public-private partnerships. This has been used as a model for many port developments and financings in the region. New water authorities have been set up in communities, and the process of making green hydrogen by electrolysis has improved the water situation in rural areas through the introduction of water desalination techniques. ‘sea water.

(photos: personal collection)

USA 2035: in the heart of Manhattan Island, in the city of New York

Looking at my watch, I consider ordering a hydrogen taxi to take me to my hotel downtown, but the traffic seems quite congested. So I opt for my second favorite option: the hydrogen train that connects Jamaica Station to Penn Station. I’ve loved this train since the first day I took it; it was a few years ago, but it seems very far away. Replacing the old diesel trains on one of North America’s busiest commuter lines with these branded hydrogen trains was ambitious, but it worked and the public loves them.

The design hasn’t changed much since those early models, they still have the hydrogen tanks on the roof. Not only are they quiet (a big difference from the previous ones), but also fast and clean. They only emit water vapour. They can also be re-powered quickly, in about fifteen minutes. Other train lines later switched to hydrogen, not only in New York but across the country. California was one of the first states to move, having been a driving force in the development of hydrogen, including for trains, after years of reflection.

The use of hydrogen for trains has provided a predictable but also substantial demand for hydrogen. This predictability and the fact that the first generation of trains had a range of over 1,000 km simplified the logistics of hydrogen supply at the start.

(photos: personal collection)

* Organization of Hydrogen Exporting Countries

By Eric Leser