The History of Hydrogen: The Big Picture

The History of Hydrogen: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and can be a clean-burning, zero-emission fuel that many believe could play a substantial role in combating climate change. So, we had to ask: What is the history of hydrogen?

Hydrogen (H2) energy began in the 1600s with the first H2 experiments and the recognition of H2 as an official element. Then, electrolysis was discovered and the fuel cell was invented in the 1800s. H2 energy has not yet entered the mainstream energy industry due to various barriers.

Keep reading to learn how hydrogen came to be, who and what pioneered its development, how effective it has been thus far, and what the future of hydrogen could entail. 

Here’s the History of Hydrogen in a Nutshell

Hydrogen (hydrogen) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable gas and is the most abundant element in the universe. 

“Hydrogen: a chemical element that is the lightest gas, has no color, taste, or smell, and combines with oxygen to form water”

Cambridge Dictionary

Hydrogen can be a source of clean energy because it emits zero carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted if sourced via the electrolysis of renewable resources (i.e. solar and wind). The energy stored in hydrogen gas can also be used as a clean-burning fuel in various modes of transportation. 

Hydrogen has gone through three distinct development phases in its development:

  • Early market formation and innovation: The early history of hydrogen dates back to the 1600s with the first hydrogen experiments, the recognition of hydrogen as an official element, and the discovery of the electrolysis process.
  • Consolidation and strengthening: Following the discovery of the electrolysis process in 1800, the invention of the hydrogen fuel cell kickstarted the hydrogen energy industry and led to the development of many different hydrogen-powered technologies including automobiles, trains, aircraft, and boats.
  • Mainstreaming: Hydrogen has yet to establish itself as a mainstream energy source. Although political momentum backing hydrogen energy remains strong, deployment of hydrogen technologies has remained relatively stagnant due to high upfront costs and technological barriers.
Hydrogen MilestonesHistorical Event
Initial startThe early history of hydrogen dates back to the 1600s with the first hydrogen experiments, the recognition of hydrogen as an official element, and the discovery of the electrolysis process. 
Milestones in hydrogen development1800: William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle discovered the process of electrolysis by applying electric current to water, thereby generating hydrogen and oxygen gasses. This discovery would become the basis of how we generate green hydrogen today.
1842: William Grove invented the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. 
1966: General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Electrovan, the world’s first road vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
2002: The world’s first hydrogen-powered, mining locomotive was introduced in Quebec.
2004: DeepC, the world’s first hydrogen-powered, autonomous underwater vehicle (UAV) was launched.
2009: The Italian company Enel opened the world’s first power plant fueled by 100% hydrogen, the Fusina Hydrogen Power Station. 
2017: The Hydrogen Council, a global initiative to advance hydrogen energy as a key player in the clean energy transition, was formed at the World Economic Forum.
2019: Alaka’i Technologies launched Skai, the world’s first hydrogen-powered aircraft.
2020: Belgian shipping company Compagnie Maritime Belge partnered with the port of Antwerp to develop HydroTug, the world’s first hydrogen-powered tugboat.
2022: The world’s first international shipment of liquified hydrogen took place between Australia and Japan via the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project. It is the first in the world to extract, liquefy, and transport liquid hydrogen by sea to an international market. 
2023: The world’s first hydrogen-powered ferry became operational in Norway.
2023: The world’s first underground hydrogen storage facility became operational in Austria.
Current statusCurrently, most of the hydrogen we produce is gray hydrogen that comes from fossil fuels, specifically natural gas. Green hydrogen produced from renewable energy accounts for less than 1% of total hydrogen production. The US and the EU lead the world in terms of hydrogen energy policy, whereas China leads the way in terms of deploying hydrogen energy technologies.
Future outlookThe future of hydrogen energy will be heavily influenced by the establishment of regulations and certification methods, international cooperation, technological advancements, and decreasing costs of hydrogen energy. Political momentum backing hydrogen energy remains strong; however, deployment of hydrogen technologies has remained relatively stagnant. 
Key policy developments1974 – International Energy Agency (IEA)
2009 – The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)
2015 – Paris Climate Agreement
2017 – Hydrogen Council
2021 – EU Clean Hydrogen Partnership
The Accelerating Clean Hydrogen Initiative

Understanding hydrogen energy’s history can provide insight into how it has developed into the energy source it is today.

When and How Did Hydrogen Get Started

The early history of hydrogen energy dates back to the 1600s when hydrogen was first produced by Robert Boyle around 1671. Hydrogen wasn’t officially recognized as an element until 1766 when English physicist Henry Cavendish became the first to produce hydrogen gas by dissolving metals in acids.

How Has Hydrogen Developed Over Time

Hydrogen can play an important role in the global energy transformation and help the transition away from fossil fuels because it is a clean-burning energy source when sourced from renewable energy sources. 

What Are Milestones in Hydrogen Development 

The discovery of the electrolysis process and the invention of the hydrogen fuel cell in the 1800s kickstarted the hydrogen energy industry and led to the development of many different hydrogen-powered technologies including automobiles, trains, aircraft, and boats.

1800: English scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle discovered the process of electrolysis by applying electric current to water, thereby generating hydrogen and oxygen gasses. This discovery would become the basis of how we generate green hydrogen today.

1842: William Grove invented the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. 

1966: General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Electrovan, the world’s first road vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

2002: The world’s first hydrogen-powered, mining locomotive was introduced in Quebec.

2004: DeepC, the world’s first hydrogen-powered, autonomous underwater vehicle (UAV) was launched.

2009: The Italian company Enel opened the world’s first power plant fueled by 100% hydrogen, the Fusina Hydrogen Power Station

2017: The Hydrogen Council, a global initiative to advance hydrogen energy as a key player in the clean energy transition, was formed at the World Economic Forum.

2019: Alaka’i Technologies launched Skai, the world’s first hydrogen-powered aircraft.

2020: Belgian shipping company Compagnie Maritime Belge partnered with the port of Antwerp to develop HydroTug, the world’s first hydrogen-powered tugboat.

2022: The world’s first international shipment of liquified hydrogen took place between Australia and Japan via the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project. It is the first in the world to extract, liquefy, and transport liquid hydrogen by sea to an international market

2023: The world’s first hydrogen-powered ferry became operational in Norway.

2023: The world’s first underground hydrogen storage facility became operational in Austria.

How Has the Hydrogen Market Developed Recently

The global hydrogen market has remained relatively stable in recent years, with demand fluctuating between 90.4 million tons in 2019 to 95 million tons in 2022.

Producing, compressing, storing, and transporting hydrogen is an expensive and complex process. Financial and technological barriers have prevented green hydrogen from taking up a greater share of the energy market to date. 

What Is the Present Status of Hydrogen

Most of the hydrogen we produce today comes from fossil fuels, specifically natural gas. In 2022, 17% of the global hydrogen supply was produced as a byproduct of the petrochemical (natural gas and oil) industry. Natural gas met 70% and coal 30% of the energy requirement for hydrogen production, and China alone accounted for 90% of global coal consumption for hydrogen production.

In contrast, green hydrogen, produced via the electrolysis of renewable energy sources (i.e., solar and wind), accounted for less than 1% of total hydrogen production in 2022. 

In terms of policy, the United States and the European Union are world leaders.

China is the world leader In terms of deployment of hydrogen energy technologies. 

China also has the world’s largest green hydrogen-producing facility in the world, the Kuqa project in Xinjiang.

The most common application of green hydrogen currently is to power different modes of transportation, primarily vehicles.

How Will the Future of Hydrogen Look Like

The future of hydrogen energy will be heavily influenced by the establishment of regulations and certification methods, international cooperation, technological advancements, and decreasing costs of hydrogen energy. Although political momentum backing hydrogen energy remains strong, deployment of hydrogen technologies has remained relatively stagnant.

How Hydrogen Will Likely Develop in the Future

The majority of hydrogen produced today is gray hydrogen sourced from natural gas. Because there are rarely any carbon capture and storage measures in place, gray hydrogen production still emits climate change-inducing greenhouse gasses. 

Pivoting towards green hydrogen, which is produced via electrolysis powered by renewable energy sources (i.e. solar and wind), is a more sustainable way to produce hydrogen that can aid in the transition away from fossil fuels. Many future hydrogen energy technologies have focused on green hydrogen’s applications in the clean energy transition.

The general consensus among experts is that hydrogen energy will be an important part of meeting targets outlined in The Paris Agreement and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario (NZE)

But in order to stay on track with the NZE scenario, hydrogen energy will need to grow more than 100-fold by 2030. More specifically, we will need to produce 50 million tons of hydrogen from electrolysis and 30 million tons of hydrogen from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage by 2030. This will require more than 550 gigawatts of electrolyzers.

Illustration of Global hydrogen production by technology in the Net Zero Scenario, 2019-2030
International Energy Agency: Global hydrogen production by technology in the Net Zero Scenario, 2019-2030

In terms of countries, China will continue to lead the world in green hydrogen energy. By the end of 2023, China’s installed electrolysis capacity is predicted to account for 50% of global capacity (roughly 1.2 gigawatts).

What Policies Are Put in Place to Support Hydrogen Usage

The most well-known piece of legally binding, international climate mitigation legislation is The Paris Agreement, the goal of which is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (C), preferably to 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The Paris Agreement specifically notes a transition towards clean energies, such as hydrogen energy, as being a critical part of meeting these goals.

Check out the highlights of the 2015 COP21 directly from the UN Climate Change channel:

Two Weeks of COP 21 in 10 Minutes

In addition, The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario is one framework for the global energy sector to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and universal energy access by 2030.

Green hydrogen can help decarbonize the transportation, chemical, and iron/steel industries, areas that have historically been difficult to reduce emissions. Hydrogen-powered vehicles, which do not emit CO2, would improve air quality. Lastly, hydrogen can support the integration of renewable energy into the power grid because it can be stored for months at a time.

Because of this, there are many global and country-specific solar energy policies and organizations aimed at meeting the 2050 net zero scenario, including: 

  • 1974 – International Energy Agency (IEA): The IEA was founded in response to the major oil disruptions in 1974. They promote international energy cooperation, including solar energy, and are made up of 31 member countries. 
  • 2020 – The Accelerating Clean Hydrogen Initiative: The initiative was formed by the World Economic Forum to ramp up the development of the green hydrogen industry. It has over 200 members from 60 organizations.

If you are interested in learning more about country-specific hydrogen energy policies, you can visit the IEA’s hydrogen policy database.

What Are Currently the Different Types of Hydrogen

There are many different types of hydrogen that can be classified based on how it is produced. 

  • Gray hydrogen: Currently the most common method of hydrogen production. Hydrogen is produced from natural gas or methane via the process of steam reforming. CO2 is created during this process but is not captured or stored, as is done with blue hydrogen. 
  • Blue hydrogen: Hydrogen is produced from natural gas via the process of steam reforming. Natural gas is combined with steam to produce hydrogen and CO2. Carbon capture and storage is used to trap and store the emitted CO2.
  • Green hydrogen: Hydrogen is produced by using renewable energy sources (i.e., solar, wind) to electrolyze water. Electrolysis splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, emitting zero CO2 in the process.
  • Black and brown hydrogen: Hydrogen is produced by using coal. This is the most environmentally damaging method of producing hydrogen.
  • Pink hydrogen: Hydrogen is produced from electrolysis powered by nuclear energy.
  • Turquoise hydrogen: Hydrogen is produced from the process of methane pyrolysis, which produces hydrogen and solid carbon. This is a relatively new method that still needs to be studied to determine if it can produce low-emission hydrogen.
  • Yellow hydrogen: Hydrogen is produced from electrolysis powered by solar power.
  • White hydrogen: Naturally occurring hydrogen deposits found underground.
Illustration of Selected Shades of Hydrogen from International Renewable Energy Agency
Related: Are you interested in learning more about hydrogen? Check it out in this article here: “Hydrogen Explained: All You Need to Know”

Final Thoughts

The early history of hydrogen dates back to the 1600s with the first hydrogen experiments, the recognition of hydrogen as an official element, and the discovery of the electrolysis process.

Following the discovery of the electrolysis process in 1800, the invention of the hydrogen fuel cell in 1842 kickstarted the hydrogen energy industry and led to the development of many different hydrogen-powered technologies including automobiles, trains, aircraft, and boats.

Although political momentum backing hydrogen energy remains strong, deployment of hydrogen technologies has remained relatively stagnant due to high upfront costs and technological barriers. Therefore, hydrogen has yet to establish itself as a mainstream energy source. 

The majority of hydrogen produced today is gray hydrogen sourced from natural gas. However, pivoting towards green hydrogen is a more sustainable way to produce hydrogen that can aid in the transition away from fossil fuels. Many future hydrogen energy technologies have focused on green hydrogen’s applications in the clean energy transition.

Stay impactful,

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