Hydrogen is currently a crucial industrial input worldwide, with a global demand for pure hydrogen at approximately 70 Mton H2/year, triple the amount in 1975.
Primarily used for petroleum refining and ammonia production, hydrogen also serves various useful purposes in the pharmaceutical, plastics, agricultural, and other industries. In recent decades, interest has grown in its use as an alternative fuel to decarbonize several sectors of the economy, including industry and transportation.
Hydrogen energy can be extracted in two ways. The first involves chemical combustion reactions, combining hydrogen with oxygen in a controlled environment, generating water and high levels of heat. The second method involves electrochemical reactions, using fuel cell technologies where hydrogen, with the use of proton-exchange membranes and catalysts, interacts indirectly with oxygen, generating only water and a greater amount of energy in the form of electricity than heat.
The release of energy through fuel cells, primarily as electricity, makes the technology considered more efficient, safe, quiet, and requiring fewer moving parts. In other words, hydrogen as an alternative fuel can be described as a highly useful input for the transportation, industrial, real estate, and electrical sectors, especially for industrial processes that require high levels of heat and electricity generation or motion through turbines, internal combustion engines, or cells.
Compared to the volume of conventional fuels, there are no significant amounts of pure hydrogen in nature; rather, it is typically bound to other elements, such as carbon in hydrocarbons or oxygen in water.
Currently, almost all hydrogen production is carried out using processes that involve inputs like natural gas or coal, resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases as byproducts. In contrast, hydrogen production through water electrolysis only generates oxygen (O2) as a byproduct.
Of the 70 Mton of H2 generated annually, 76% is produced through steam methane reforming using natural gas, and 23% through gasification using coal. When all methods are combined, the amount of CO2 generated as a result of hydrogen production is 830 Mton per year. If hydrogen is to be used as an alternative fuel to decarbonize economies and the existing hydrogen industry, its production method must involve water electrolysis, using renewable electricity sources that do not generate greenhouse gas emissions.
Costa Rica has a favorable position for the generation of green hydrogen, leveraging its green country brand, strategic geographical positioning, political stability, and human talent. The country has made significant strides with pilot research projects, such as the hydrogen ecosystem for transportation located in the province of Guanacaste.
However, even more crucial is the recognition of its renewable energy matrix, which, unlike many in the world, achieved an electrical coverage of 99.4% by 2019 and generated over 98% of its electricity from renewable sources since 2015.
This is of utmost importance because the requirement for classifying hydrogen as “green” or low in carbon emissions mandates that the electricity used comes from carbon-free sources.
For large-scale projects, where hydrogen production needs to occur continuously, supplementary electricity from the grid will always be required since renewable energy sources like solar and wind have low capacity factors and do not operate at 100% of their installed capacity.
That being said, despite the absence of significant energy surplus in the country and the need for substantial investments in transmission and power generation infrastructure to realize large-scale green hydrogen projects, Costa Rica’s renewable and zero-emission grid complementarity makes it a competitive player in Latin America for project development and an attractive destination for foreign investment.
In recent decades, hydrogen technologies have gained significant prominence for vehicle propulsion. These vehicles, known as ‘Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles’ (FCEVs), typically store hydrogen in gaseous form in an internal tank. The hydrogen is then used to power a fuel cell that drives the electric motor propelling the vehicle, emitting only heat and water. Additionally, there are various types of vehicles that use hydrogen blends or pure hydrogen in internal combustion engines or turbines, becoming increasingly robust and practical to use.
Currently, the advantages of hydrogen vehicles over battery electric vehicles can be summarized as follows:
1. Hydrogen, being a fuel with high energy density per unit of mass, allows for sufficient onboard storage to cover distances comparable to conventional fuel vehicles.
2. Gaseous hydrogen, capable of being dispensed by pressure differential, can be done safely and with a duration comparable to dispensing conventional fuels.
However, the major disadvantage hindering the adoption of these vehicles is the lack of necessary infrastructure to dispense hydrogen at the required pressure conditions for proper vehicle operation. Additionally, if seen as an option for decarbonizing the transportation sector, infrastructure for generating and transporting green hydrogen to the point of consumption is also essential.
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