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UK 'should store excess renewable energy in hydrogen'

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Hydrogen could be a green and efficient alternative to relatively environmentally unfriendly lithium-ion batteries, a new report has claimed.

The IMechE report, Energy from Gas: Taking a Whole System Approach, called on the government and industry to introduce several pro-hydrogen policies, including updating pipes and materials in the gas distribution network to handle concentrations of up to 20% by 2023.

Operators can convert electrical energy into stored chemical energy in hydrogen by using electricity for electrolysis, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen could then be reused to generate electricity when needed, injected into the heating system or used as low-emission fuel for hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

The report also calls for a government study of the long-term sustainability of lithium-ion battery materials compared to power-to-gas systems and fuel cells.

Lithium-ion is “established and cheap” with no tailpipe emissions, said the report. But, it added, “there are still difficulties facing this technology in terms of duration of electricity storage, efficiencies and losses, size, and – perhaps more concerning – the sustainability of the materials used in battery technologies and the long-term management of wastes and recycling”.

Battery use is set to soar as both renewable energy and electric vehicles are widely adopted. However, the report added, “the required increases in the materials needed for battery manufacture could lead to environmental and human suffering”.

The majority of mined lithium comes from South America, in a process that uses sunlight to evaporate brine. New deposits are being accessed as demand increases, and more energy-intensive techniques, such as crushing, will be used to extract the metal. A recycling rate of just 5% for lithium-ion batteries is also an ethical concern, the report added.

“By widening our use of gas in the energy system, the UK will not be restricted to an electricity and battery future and will be able to adapt to a changing climate, emerging technologies, population and political demands,” said the report, led by Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the IMechE.

Hydrogen could facilitate further increases in renewable energy generation, by providing storage for excess electricity during high production or low demand.

“The UK has a strong track record of being at the cutting edge of new energy developments, and this could present the country with a chance to be a world leader in power-to-gas and hydrogen technology,” said Dr Baxter. “We need to move away from our wasteful culture to a more sustainable and circular economy. Power-to-gas and hydrogen technology could and should play a major role in building this future.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told Professional Engineering that the government is examining how the “hydrogen economy” can expand from the chemical sector to decarbonise other sectors. A new programme of work is looking at hydrogen’s role in the energy system and in meeting efficiency goals.

He said: “The renewables sector is thriving – and, through our modern Industrial Strategy, we are making significant investments in research and innovation, with over £60m invested in unlocking the potential of hydrogen technologies. Hydrogen is a safe and clean energy source that could play an important role in delivering flexible clean energy for homes, industry and transport, and we are currently examining its exciting potential for the UK.” 

The report also said the government must commit to creating an industrial forum bringing together the nuclear, renewable power and gas sectors. When contacted, BEIS did not specifically comment on any of the recommendations before the publication of this article.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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