Vladimir Litvinenko: Hydrogen Can Never Be a Global Energy Resource Due to the Principles of Physics of the World around Us
Russia is aiming to develop hydrogen energetics. Rosatom, a Russian organisation that specialises in nuclear energy, proposed an initiative to establish a new export-oriented industry by 2024. This move was also supported by the Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation.
Yet some experts do not think the proposal was rational and well-thought-out. As such, Professor Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of Saint Petersburg Mining University, noted that implementing such a large-scale project would not happen because no reliable hydrogen transportation and storage technology exists. The world's lightest element is a highly active gas — it is harmful to metal structures and causes their gradual destruction.
The already existing pipeline system is not suitable for transporting hydrogen to Europe. If used for that purpose, it will be subject to imminent attacks, most notably where pipe welds are located. Building new infrastructure sensitive to characteristics of gas will, in turn, require huge investments, which are unlikely to ever pay off due to the uncertainty of prospects.
A group of scientists headed by Professor Litvinenko, Doctor of Engineering Science, provides several more arguments in favour of an extremely cautious approach to the new endeavour in the research article "Barriers to implementation of hydrogen initiatives in the context of global energy sustainable development". For instance, they mention the challenge of overcoming too high costs of hydrogen production - whether from methane or by electrolysis.
Following the publication of the paper in social media, a lively discussion among an academic public occurred. Most of the readers expressed doubts about the significance of hydrogen's role in the future of energy. They also assumed that if element, however, becomes a new global energy carrier, it may lead to a sharp increase in electricity tariffs and lower safety of power grid facilities. Finally, the environmental effects of hydrogen need to be reconsidered.
"It is true that in the result of an electrochemical reaction taking place over hydrogen as opposed to diesel or natural gas, no harmful substances are released into the air. The problem is that during the production, carbon monoxide and, later, carbon dioxide is formed from methane. Again electrolysis processes require large amounts of energy, which are quite often generated along with greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore disputes on environmental benefits of hydrogen do not seem reasonable, at least for now," notes Prof Vladimir Litvinenko, D.Eng.Sc.
It is worth noting that an idea of utilising hydrogen as an energy source or transport fuel is hardly new. It was 1975 when a leading Soviet physicist and Nobel laureate Peter Kapitsa gave a speech on prospects for hydrogen at the scientific session devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. In his report on the future of alternative energy, he noted that "the world's leading countries are heavily investing in scientific-technical research in this area". But with that said, "they mostly do their work following a narrowly technical approach, whereas the logic of science is not always properly accounted". Also "energy production, transformation, and storage are fundamental physical processes". Thus studies would have been much more efficient had the laws of physics been a priority.
Peter Kapitsa pointed out in his presentation that "the main principle of physics is the energy conservation law". Besides, "the law that requires to take into account the entropy increment in physical processes largely affects the possibilities of using a certain energy carrier". To put it differently, one has to consider irreversible energy dissipation during the transformation and related to that efficiency loss. And this is something supporters of alternative technologies do not adjust for in their calculations.
"More than 45 years ago, Peter Kapitsa provided an evident proof of that the limitations preventing the adoption of alternative technologies - hydrogen included - in the global energy sector are not politically driven but attributable to laws of physics. He noticed that through scientific or engineering effort, we might in theory almost reach physical limits of a particular technology, but we will never be able to overstep them. If we look into the use of solar, wind, geothermal energy, hydro resources, wave and tidal energy, we shall see that Kapitsa was right: efficiency ratio of those sources falls between 15 and 50 per cent. Aside from that, an additional power supply must be available to avoid power outage caused by a lack of sunlight or wind, which thereby limits the applicability of these technologies" explains Prof Litvinenko.
Kapitsa paid particular attention to the development potential of nuclear energetics. And yet, despite its multiple advantages, it did not replace hydrocarbons but filled a specific niche market: current share of nuclear energy in the global energy mix is slightly above ten per cent. At the same time, hydrogen formation occurring in case of an accident at nuclear power stations remains an unsolved issue.
Rector of the Mining University is convinced that due to the physical laws of our world, the role of hydrogen in the future of global energy will stay limited. The resource will have its niche within which its chemical and physical properties will be taken advantage of contrary to the economic viability. Hydrogen exploitation will nonetheless depend on the involvement of highly-educated specialists and adherence to the stringent safety requirements along the entire technological chain.
As per Prof Vladimir Litvinenko, public demands calling for the early introduction of hydrogen technologies do not seem to be rational since energy is the foundation of the economy and its primary growth driver. When asked about the reasons for taking part in writing the scientific article "Barriers to implementation of hydrogen initiatives in the context of global energy sustainable development", the leading energy expert mentions the need to engage both researchers and practitioners into discussions. Without extensive investigation of the highly relevant topic and completion of joint interdisciplinary studies, a sophisticated approach to understanding the future role of hydrogen cannot be elaborated.
Prof Litvinenko believes that the right party to handle disputes between the followers of alternative and traditional energy is UNESCO, which is quite a logical decision when bearing in mind that ensuring access to affordable and clean energy is one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. That said, hydrogen is unable to fulfil that target at this stage.
Denying the fact that hydrogen has become an object of research interest and element of human progress would also be too naïve. It looks there is a niche for it but a quite limited one. And as for the significance of hydrogen's role in the global energy market, the assumption is somewhat questionable.