If you have watched the Netflix film ‘Glass Onion’ starring Danielle Craig as the indomitable sleuth Benoit Blanc from its prequel ‘Knives Out’, you might find yourself pondering the use of hydrogen gas as the fuel of the future. In the film, hydrogen is portrayed as highly flammable and extremely dangerous to use.
However, movies are not known to be the bastions of scientific information and to be fair, it is the nature of combustible gases to be well… flammable when exposed to the right quantities of oxygen or moisture in the air. That said, most gases used for domestic use such as lighting tend to be inert gases which do not easily react due to oxidation or hydrolysis as opposed to hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a very light gas with a heavy reputation that goes back to the days of the Hindenburg disaster and its role in the atomic bomb. The Hindenburg is a Zeppelin that caught fire while about to land over Manhattan, New York, in 1937. The hydrogen bomb was a close contender of the atomic bomb in World War II but was rejected due to its vastly greater destructive potential, being thousands of times more fatal and powerful than the atomic bomb, capable of wiping out entire cities. Fortunatelly, an atomic bomb was used, otherwise Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have experienced higher fatalities.
At the time of development, the hydrogen bomb was championed by Edward Teller, its creator, as an alternative to the atomic bomb, sparking professional hostilities between Teller and Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the Atomic Bomb.
Again, you can watch the movie Oppenheimer for the details. The Russians tested hydrogen bombs in 1955 and the ‘Tsar Bomba’ in 1961, the strongest nuclear bomb ever tested. Uranium was not used in the test resulting in such little radioactive harm that testers could visit the site of testing two hours later without coming to any harm. The world has been closely monitoring hydrogen fuel developments, evident from the interest shown by the movie industry.
Hydrogen as the fuel of the future
Packing such power, it’s a wonder that hydrogen is only now finding more mainstream uses. When burned, hydrogen generates water as a byproduct as opposed to modern day fuels that emit carbon which combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. Only during the process of hydrogen production is there a possibility of emissions. Hydrogen is therefore considered a green alternative to fossil fuels. But is it safe? The fuel has an invisible flame and is so light that it cannot be used together with odorants such as those used in LPGs to warn of leaks. Current applications of hydrogen have been in fuel cell vehicles. Research and Development is still ongoing to make hydrogen safe such as proposals to store hydrogen in salt caverns as a precautionary measure.
Kenya takes to hydrogen
Kenya’s target to go fully green by 2030 is not only ambitious but fully attainable. Currently, 93% of all energy in Kenya is sourced from renewables. Thanks to the country tapping its vast geothermal resources, it now ranks seventh globally as a geothermal producer. This has enabled Kenya to position itself as a highly attractive investment destination especially for companies that are now heavily concerned about greening and diversifying their supply chains. In order to attract more of these environmentally conscious investors, there are plans in place to attain net zero goals by 2050.
President William Ruto chose the recently concluded Africa Climate Summit 2023 to launch the country’s new green hydrogen strategy and roadmap for the country. The document sets out the commitment to use hydrogen in areas that have been highlighted by the Kenya Kwanza government in its Manifesto and identifies applications in transport, industry and power. The road map contemplates specifically hydrogen’s use in decarbonising the transport, shipping and aviation sectors.
Kenya heavily relies on imported fertiliser which is used in the agricultural sector, the backbone of the economy. Hydrogen has been touted as a solution through fostering domestic production of fertiliser reliant on green hydrogen and ammonia. Such fertiliser can also be exported and earn Kenya foreign exchange. It will also be used in industrial processes that foster green value chains and draw in further investment estimated at USD 1 billion.
President Ruto is a former Agriculture minister and has a more than keen interest in the sector and therefore has severally worked hard to ensure enough fertiliser gets to farmers. Implementation is set to take around 10 years starting in 2024 and be completed by 2032 to create an additional 25,000 jobs while avoiding at least 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. In the first five years of the project, 100,000 tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser is expected to be produced locally.
By the end of 2022, a total of 23 countries globally had a hydrogen strategy in place. Kenya will not be the first country on the continent to utilise hydrogen as Egypt already has projects estimated at USD 83 billion lined up, particularly in the fertiliser sector but in the race to decarbonise, Kenya has a strong lead on the continent.