An energy source that can power everything from
mass transport by land, sea and air to heavy industry, that does no harm to the
environment and is practically limitless sounds like an ecologist’s Utopian
But it’s no dream – and the revolution is already
underway. Its name? Hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe.
Industrialists the world over say the gas can
become a crucial part of the global energy mix – and faster than many people
might imagine. “I think the real test is when will the man in the street
starts to recognise that hydrogen is part of the energy mix,” Ronnie
Chalmers, vice president of the French industrial gases’ supplier Air Liquide’s
Africa, Middle East and India hub, tells The National. “I think
that will come before 2030, at different places and different times around the
The Hydrogen Council says that by 2030 the gas will
be a significant energy player with millions of hydrogen-powered vehicles on
the road. Launched at the World Economic Forum 2017, in Davos, Hydrogen Council
founders include Air Liquide, Toyota, BMW, Alstom and Airbus, among other big
The council believes the hydrogen sector will carry
similar financial weight to the hydrocarbons industry with revenues worth some
$2.5 trillion annually by 2050 and jobs for more than 30 million people
globally. By comparison, the oil and gas market had total revenues of $1.97tn
worldwide in 2017, according to BusinessWire’s Global Oil & Gas Industry
The council’s view may be a little optimistic,
Robin Mills, the chief executive of the consultancy Qamar Energy, and author of
The Myth of the Oil Crisis, tells The National. “Oil today
is a $2.2tn business, gas say $0.5tn, coal $0.8tn,” he says. “So
$2.5tn for hydrogen looks like a stretch. But it could certainly be a very
The mass implementation of hydrogen as a transport power
source is already taking place. Hydrogen fuel cells power electric forklift
trucks around the world and helps businesses such as Amazon, Ikea and others
increase their production hours and reduce operating costs. The fuel cells do
not need recharging like traditional battery-powered forklifts – hydrogen
powered forklifts can be fully fuelled in under five minutes.
Hydrogen has been used in industry for decades such
as in refining, treating metals and food processing but it is the acceleration
of renewable energy that has spurred the multinationals’ interest – and Air
Liquide sees the UAE as an ideal destination to further the hydrogen cause.
As a pioneer in renewable energy, particularly
solar, the Emirates is committed to developing its green energy economy and, in
part, this is why Air Liquide recently undertook a study in collaboration with
Al Futtaim Toyota – which distributes Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Mirai vehicle
in the UAE – and Khalifa University to look at strategies to grow the hydrogen
This month, the first solar-driven hydrogen
electrolysis facility in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region was
inaugurated in Dubai.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of the
Dubai Supreme Council of Energy and chairman of the Expo 2020 Dubai Higher
Committee, broke ground on the project, a collaboration between Dubai
Electricity and Water Authority, Expo 2020 Dubai and Siemens. It will be built
at Dewa’s outdoor testing facilities in the Research and Development Centre at
the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai, state media agency WAM
Mr Chalmers adds that the UAE has all the right
ambitions regarding decarbonisation in the economy and “it was easy for us
to say to Al Futtaim, ‘You have the same problem as us, you have the product,
you need somebody to build fuel stations, we need somebody to market the
Speaking at a press event in December to showcase
hydrogen mass transport potential, Saud Abbasi, managing director of Al Futtaim
Toyota, said: “In our next chapter, and in line with the UAE Vision 2021,
we believe that Mirai [hydrogen fuel cell-electric vehicle] and any other FCEV
in the future, once adopted on a large national scale, can actively help the
UAE in its march towards serious climate action thanks to the many practical
benefits it presents such as zero pollutants, zero behavioural change, long
mileage and minimal hydrogen filling time of three to five minutes.”
So far, Al Futtaim in partnership with Air Liquide
has opened a hydrogen station, the first in the Middle East, at Al Badia, Dubai
Festival City. A second station is set to start construction this year in
Masdar City, in collaboration with Adnoc, Masdar and Al Futtaim.
Air Liquide is also pushing the use of renewables
as a source of hydrogen.
“The ultimate goal is to have 100 per cent
green hydrogen – the definition of green hydrogen is that it comes from green
energy. This could be solar, wind, biogas,” says Olivier Boucat, head of
Air Liquide’s H2 Mobility unit.
The company admits it is not at that stage yet.
Today, Air Liquide uses a mix of green and “brown” hydrogen – where
methane sourced from coal or natural gas is processed to release hydrogen –
producing a lot of CO2 as a byproduct.
But it aims to rapidly ramp up its share of green
hydrogen produced by using water electrolysis and renewable sources of
electricity, such as solar in the UAE, which does not emit CO2. In January, Air
Liquide announced it had acquired an 18.6 per cent stake in Canadian company
Hydrogenics Corporation for $20 million, which makes electrolysis hydrogen
production equipment and fuel cells.
Electrolysis works by passing electricity through
water which splits it into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is collected,
transported and stored either in gas form or as a liquid super-chilled to minus
253°C – which, incidentally, is the form in which it is used to power space
rockets. The oxygen can be used in other industrial processes.
To power a car, for example, the hydrogen runs from
the fuel tank into a fuel cell, where it re-combines with oxygen from the air,
producing energy as electricity, rather than explosive energy as in an internal
combustion engine. The resulting electricity is released in a controlled manner
to power the engine, the same kind of engine an electric battery car uses.
But there is another significant difference between
an electric battery vehicle and an FCEV.
“The heavier the car is the more energy it
consumes,” says Pascal Schvester, Air Liquide’s director of the Middle
East and India Industrial Merchant unit. A high-end electric vehicle (EV) today
needs about 700kg of battery, which is maybe a third of the weight of the
vehicle, he says. “That is something you do not have with a hydrogen fuel
cell car – in which you have, say, 6kg of hydrogen.”
Currently, however, green hydrogen is prohibitively
expensive to produce. But as countries move away from hydrocarbons as a fuel,
economies of scale will bring the price down. “At the moment it’s better
to have a large facility and then transport the hydrogen as a gas but when the
volumes get big enough it will be better to transport as a liquid,” says
“This is happening already in California; we
are just commissioning the first liquid hydrogen plant to provide liquid
hydrogen to a station.”
With construction to start later this year, at a
cost to build of around $150m, the plant will have the capacity to generate
nearly 30 tonnes of hydrogen per day – enough to fuel 35,000 hydrogen-powered
vehicles. The facility is designed to accelerate the deployment of new hydrogen
FCEVs – cars and fleet vehicles such as taxis, trucks and buses and trams, as is
happening in Europe.
However, hydrogen’s cost as a fuel is unlikely to
reach commercial parity with petrol, diesel or electric battery power, although
price is not likely to be the determining factor for its uptake, according to
Mr Mills. “I think hydrogen will always be more expensive than petrol or
diesel, but the reasons for its adoption would be that it’s zero-carbon, clean
at the point of use, and (potentially) indefinitely renewable. The question is
whether it can compete cost-wise with electric vehicles which are improving
“Hydrogen’s at quite an immature stage, so
this really depends on how much support it gets to build scale and bring down
Mr Mills says that the large-scale vehicle sector
is most suited to hydrogen as a transport fuel. “Probably it will have to
find its role in long-distance, heavy-duty transport like trucks, rail,
shipping and perhaps aviation,” he says.
However, the more down-to-earth fleet vehicle
sector is Air Liquide’s main focus in the UAE. “We’re not targeting the
super cars like Jeremy Clarkson might drive on Top Gear,”says
Mr Boucat, but he says “the aeroplane would be the last goal for us”.
Air Liquide’s Mr Schvester also points out that
regarding fleets “you don’t need to have a massive network of hydrogen
filling stations because in this case you are dealing with vehicles that are
commuting from one place to the other on a fixed basis” so fuelling
stations can be centralised.
Globally, Japan is generally seen as the leader so
far in hydrogen take-up. The country’s Basic Hydrogen Strategy, released in
December, 2017, reiterated its commitment to pioneer the world’s first
“Hydrogen Society”. The strategy primarily aims to achieve cost parity of
hydrogen with competing fuels, such as petrol in transport and Liquified
Natural Gas (LNG) in power generation.
“By 2030 Japan will start to import hydrogen
in liquid form to produce energy for various applications in the country,”
says Mr Boucat. “When we reach that point we are at a very large
Last month, South Korea announced a major
investment plan to go the same way. By 2040, the country aims to increase the
cumulative total of fuel cell vehicles to 6.2 million, raise the number of
hydrogen refuelling stations to 1,200 (from just 14 today) and also boost the
supply of power-generating fuel cells.
Through these measures, the government hopes to
create 420,000 jobs and $38.35 billion in value added to the economy each year
China now invests about 100bn yuan a year
(Dh54.09bn) in hydrogen energy, according to Professor Zong Qiang Mao of Tsinghua
University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology, who adds that the
country has the capacity to produce about 170,000 FCEVs per year. It’s likely
to become a huge market. “I predict that in about 10 years we will also be
the largest market in the world for hydrogen energy,” Mr Zong told
cH2ange, an organisation dedicated to promoting the hydrogen economy and which
is supported by Air Liquide.
Germany in September opened its 50th hydrogen
filling station. With the ramp-up of the number of fuel cell vehicles, another
300 hydrogen refuelling stations are planned over the next two or three years.
In Paris, the Societe du Taxi Electrique Parisien
has a total of 100 hydrogen-powered vehicles in its fleet, and is aiming to
have 600 such vehicles by 2020. In the UK, meanwhile, the government announced
last year police cars and taxis will be among nearly 200 new hydrogen powered
vehicles as part of a project that has won £8.8m (Dh42.4m) in funding from the
Department for Transport to increase the number of hydrogen cars on the roads.
Air Liquide believes such developments are just the
“I think within a few years we’ll see more [hydrogen-powered] trains, taxis, buses and trucks and the man in the street will think, ‘ah yes, it’s just another hydrogen vehicle,'” says Mr Chalmers.
“We got used to LNG trucks, we’re getting used
to EVs and next will be hydrogen.”
With regional governments now set to reduce oil dependency through policy and regulation change, the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and the phenomenon of the Internet of Things (IoT) is now rife among all sectors in the region, added the report from MEED, a leading business intelligence provider.
Organizations are on board to make structural changes through the usage of advanced and innovative technology. But while many of the innovations that promise to shape the region in the coming years are still new, and sometimes experimental, others are widely known, even if not yet in common use.
MEED looks at 10 technologies set to transform the Middle East over the next decade.
Grid-scale batteries to enable energy diversification
Global investment in high-capacity batteries is transforming the market for renewable energy. The large-scale adoption of alternative energy has long been hampered by the unreliable, inflexible nature of its major sources, the wind and sun. The problems caused by intermittent energy production can only be solved by developing effective storage solutions; batteries that can store energy at peak production times for later deployment.
A significant drop in the prices of lithium and vanadium – essential battery components – in addition to improvements in battery efficiency, are enabling large scale adoption of energy storage facilities.
Abu Dhabi’s recent launch of the region’s first Grid-Scale Battery Deployment and the world’s largest Virtual Battery Plant is indicative of the region’s commitment to diversifying its energy supply.
Digital payment – fintech
The initial caution of governments in GCC to digital payments and financial technology (fintech) is beginning to abate and the first online payments were made across the region in 2018, following a series successful trials of the technology that persuaded authorities to relax regulation. With limited access to banking facilities, an estimated 86 per cent of adults in the region (Reuters) do not have a bank account. This, coupled with an increase in the mobile phone capabilities makes the Mena market a real opportunity for fintech investment. Research company Mena Research Partners estimated the fintech market in the Mena region to be worth $2 billion in 2018 and it is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2022.
There is a growing realisation that complex systems such as oil fields, electricity grids, building sites and entire cities can be managed more effectively if siloed data can be combined on a single platform. New remote sensor technology can provide critical real-time data, allowing managers to make quick, informed decisions and increasingly intelligent software is being developed to automate complex processes. Internet of Things (IoT), which is a convergence of technologies such as remote sensors, machine learning and real-time analytics, is central to the development of these smart, digital ecosystems.
The GCC has been a global frontrunner in the uptake of autonomous driving, with UAE leading the way. The Dubai Future Foundation in partnership with Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) launched the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy which aims to make 25 per cent of Dubai transportation autonomous by 2030, saving $6 billion annually. The RTA is currently conducting tests to decide the winners of the Dubai World Challenge for Self-Driving Transport, which are focused on the provision of first/last Mile transportation.
5G supporting the new digital ecosystem
In May this year, Emirates Telecommunication Company, Etisalat, launched the region’s first 5G enabled smartphones. The new 5G networks transfer data 20 times faster than 4G, have a bigger capacity, are more reliable. This vital development is needed to support the emerging ecosystem of digital technologies including IoT, smart cities, cloud computing and autonomous vehicles. According to Globaldata, the number of mobile network subscriptions in the Mena region is expected to be 15.8 million by 2023.
Shift away from traditional fuel sources to free up crude oil for higher value products and export sees an increase in demand for alternative energy sources. One of the most promising alternative fuels is hydrogen, which can be produced using solar photovoltaic technology. This will be showcased at Expo 2020 by the use of fuel-cell vehicles that run on hydrogen generated at a solar-driven hydrogen electrolysis facility at Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park.
Using AI to make the most of VR and AR
Initially gaining popularity through the gaming industry, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are increasingly being used for training, marketing and problem-solving. VR systems can have powerful applications when combined with artificial intelligence (AI). For example, it could be possible to develop a microscope that can highlight cancerous cells or the dashboard of a vehicle that can detect hazards and alert the driver using signals on the dashboard.
Electrification of transport
Electric Vehicles (EVs) potentially are among the most transformative of all emerging technologies, delivering a change as significant as the move from horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines in the early 2oth century. While electric milk floats and golf buggies have been widely used since the middle of the 20th century, huge leaps forward in battery capacity and materials technology have brought EVs to the edge of becoming mainstream modes of transport.
Their benefits in terms of reducing carbon emissions and energy conservation could be huge. Technical challenges ranging from development of electricity charging infrastructure through to battery capacity and safety capabilities remain to be overcome however before EVs they will become our primary mode of transport.
By 2025, the global 3D printing market is expected account for an annual spend of over $20bn.The Middle East is recognising the potential of additive manufacturing, with Dubai leading the trend with its3D printing strategy, announced in April 2016, which set the ambitious target of all constructing 25 per cent of new buildings using additive manufacturing. The sectors that could see the most benefit from the technology are healthcare – for joints, teeth, medical and training equipment, aerospace, consumer manufacturing and construction.
Food security – Vertical farming and hydroponics
Increasing population, extreme climate conditions and political and economic instability are putting food security in the Middle East high on the political agenda. With the region importing over 50 per cent of its food, governments are looking to boost local production using soil-free methods of farming that are 70 per cent more water efficient than traditional methods and use fewer chemicals. New, vertical farming techniques that require less space can be adopted in urban areas to bring production closer to the consumers.
With these new technological trends disrupting the market, Meed has introduced the third edition of the MEED awards, assessing companies on their initiatives in becoming more technologically advanced. Powered by Parsons (strategic construction partner) and Acwa Power (official power & water partner) the MEED awards is due to close its submission deadlines by the end of this week. – TradeArabia News Service
You may have seen a variant of this meme before. A map of North Africa is shown, with a surprisingly small box somewhere in Libya or Algeria shaded in. An area of the Sahara this size, the caption will say, could power the entire world through solar energy:
Over the years various different schemes have been proposed for making this idea a reality. Though a company called Desertec caused a splash with some bold ideas a decade ago, it collapsed in 2014 and none of the other proposals to export serious amounts of electricity from the Sahara to Europe and beyond are anywhere close to being realised.
It’s still hard to store and transport that much electricity from such a remote place, for one thing, while those people who do live in the Sahara may object to their homeland being transformed into a solar superpower. In any case, turning one particular region into a global energy hub risks all sorts of geopolitical problems.
The Imagine newsletter aims to tackle these big “what if” questions, so we asked a number of academics to weigh in on the challenges of exploiting the cheapest form of electricity from perhaps the cheapest and best spot on Earth.
Sahara has huge energy potential
Amin Al-Habaibeh is an engineer at Nottingham Trent University who has researched various options for Saharan solar.
He points to the sheer size and amount of sunshine the Sahara desert receives:
It’s larger than Brazil and slightly smaller than the US.
If every drop of sunshine that hits the Sahara was converted into energy, the desert would produce enough electricity over any given period to power Europe 7,000 times over.
So even a small chunk of the desert could indeed power much of the world, in theory. But how would this be achieved?
Al-Habaibeh points to two main technologies. Both have their pros and cons.
Concentrated solar power uses lenses or mirrors to focus the sun’s energy in one spot, which becomes incredibly hot. This heat then generates electricity through a steam turbine.
In this image the tower in the middle is the “receiver” which then feeds heat to a generator:
Some systems store the heat in the form of molten salt. This means they can release energy overnight, when the sun isn’t shining, providing a 24h supply of electricity.
Concentrated solar power is very efficient in hot, dry environments, but the steam generators use lots of water.
Then there are regular photovoltaic solar panels. These are much more flexible and easier to set up, but less efficient in the very hottest weather.
Overall, Al-Habaibeh is positive:
Just a small portion of the Sahara could produce as much energy as the entire continent of Africa does at present. As solar technology improves, things will only get cheaper and more efficient. The Sahara may be inhospitable for most plants and animals, but it could bring sustainable energy to life across North Africa – and beyond.
Solar panels could have remarkable impact on the desert though
Installing mass amounts of solar panels in the Sahara could also have a remarkable impact on the desert itself.
The Sahara hasn’t always been dry and sandy. Indeed, archaeologists have found traces of human societies in the middle of the desert, along with prehistoric cave paintings of Savannah animals. Along with climate records, this suggests that just a few thousand years ago the “desert” was far greener than today.
Alona Armstrong, an environmental science lecturer at Lancaster University, wrote about a fascinating study in 2018 that suggested massive renewable energy farms could make the Sahara green again.
This may be a nice side effect of a huge Saharan solar plant, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it should happen. As Armstrong points out:
These areas may be sparsely populated but people do live there, their livelihoods are there, and the landscapes are of cultural value to them. Can the land really be “grabbed” to supply energy to Europe and the Middle East?
Is this climate colonialism?
If we want to deploy millions of solar panels in the Sahara, then who is “we”? Who pays for it, who runs it and, crucially, who gets the cheap electricity?
This is what worries Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, a philosopher who researches climate justice at Georgetown University. He mentions Saharan solar power as one of the possible policies involved in a Green New Deal, a wide-ranging plan to enact a “green transition” over the next decade.
He points out that exports of solar power could: “Exacerbate what scholars like sociologist Doreen Martinez call climate colonialism – the domination of less powerful countries and peoples through initiatives meant to slow the pace of global warming.”
While Africa may have abundant energy resources, the continent is also home to the people who are the least connected to the grid.
Solar exports risk “bolstering European energy security … while millions of sub-Saharan Africans have no energy of their own.”
What if we’re looking at the wrong desert?
All of this will be moot if Saharan solar never actually happens. And Denes Csala, a lecturer in energy systems at Lancaster University, is sceptical.
It’s true that much of the world’s best solar resources are found in the desert. Here’s a graph from his PhD research which shows how Saharan nations dominate:
But Denes says that we’re looking at the wrong desert. In fact, the countries of the Arabian peninsula are better placed to exploit the sun. He argues several factors work in favour of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and co:
They have a history of exporting oil.
In the energy market, worries over security of supply means countries tend to do business with the same partners over time.
Ports, pipes and other infrastructure that have been built to ship oil and gas could be repurposed to ship solar energy as hydrogen.
[Energy security] would be the Achilles heel of a northern African energy project: the connections to Europe would likely be the continent’s single most important critical infrastructure and, considering the stability of the region, it is unlikely that European countries would take on such a risk.
It would be fair to say academics have mixed views about the idea of mass Saharan solar. While the energy potential is obvious, and most of the necessary technology already exists, in the long run it may prove too complicated politically.
Still think this is all fantasy?
Maybe Europeans should look closer to home. The UK Planning Inspectorate is currently examining the Cleve Hill solar farm proposal in Kent, which would involve installing nearly a million solar panels across a marshland site the size of 600 football pitches. To protect against flooding, the panels would be mounted several metres in the air. If built, despite opposition from locals and conservationists, Cleve Hill would be by far the country’s largest solar farm and about the same size as Europe’s largest, near Bordeaux.
Alastair Buckley from the University of Sheffield points out the project would be groundbreaking as, unlike other ventures of this kind, it doesn’t rely on subsidies. With solar power getting ever cheaper, Cleve Hill – if it happens – seems to mark the moment when solar may start paying for itself – even far from the world’s deserts.
Imagine is a newsletter from The Conversation that presents a vision of a world acting on climate change. Drawing on the collective wisdom of academics in fields from anthropology and zoology to technology and psychology, it investigates the many ways life on Earth could be made fairer and more fulfilling by taking radical action on climate change. You are currently reading the web version of the newsletter.
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