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U.K. hydrogen fuel experiment could be a model for cutting emissions

About 30 percent of all greenhouse emissions come from transportation, from individuals getting from point A to point B to fleets of semi-trucks moving goods. One quick way to remove a huge chunk of our carbon emissions is by simply putting fewer cars on the road — something countries like India have tried out of desperation to cut down on air pollution. Unfortunately, such a solution simply isn't practical the world over. But making the fuel burned by all those vehicles cleaner might be. In the United Kingdom, an experiment is underway to blend traditional fossil fuels with hydrogen to create a gas alternative that produces significantly fewer carbon emissions.

According to the BBC, the project — known as HyDeploy — will utilize a gas blend that contains 20 percent hydrogen. Its first test run will take place at Keele University, which utilizes a private gas system. In theory, the hydrogen blend should burn in the exact same way as a standard fossil fuel, though it doesn't produce the same amount of harmful emissions that its traditional alternatives does. Cadent, the energy firm behind the HyDeploy project believe that if this new fuel was rolled out across Britain, it could reduce the nation's carbon emissions about six million metric tonnes. That would be the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road.

Hydrogen has been the holy grail of alternative fuels sources, but harnessing it for such purposes has proven to be a challenge. It is ideal for a number of reasons, first and foremost because it is abundant. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and makes up about 75 percent of all matter. It is also extremely versatile, capable of being produced without any greenhouse gases and burned cleanly because it is highly combustible — though it is also possible for the element to be used to produce electricity directly without combustion through an electrochemical process, per the United States Department of Energy. That, combined with the fact that the only product of burning hydrogen is water, makes the element a viable clean alternative to our existing fuel sources that put carbon and other harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when we produce and burn them off.

If hydrogen sounds too good to be true, that's because thus far it largely has been. For one, harnessing it is expensive. The element typically has to be separated from another element, such as oxygen in water. Performing that process requires a technique known as electrolysis, which involves running a powerful electric current through water in order to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from one another. While the method is effective, it is also costly because it requires a high level of energy expenditure to complete. The method can also be used to harness hydrogen from sources other than water, like fossil fuels or even potentially other renewable energy sources, but the cost is still prohibitive. Scientists have also experimented with steam extraction as a potential method for harnessing hydrogen. The process separates hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms found in methane and would potentially open up the possibility of creating a green alternative fuel from the more traditional sources that we are already burning through — though obviously it would be preferable to avoid these burning those fuels entirely.

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Once it has been removed from other elements, regardless of the method used, storing the resulting hydrogen has proven to be a challenge. Because hydrogen is considerably less dense than gasoline, it needs to be kept in a liquid state rather than the gas state that it typically exists as when at room temperature. To push hydrogen to liquid form for storage, it has to be kept at a temperature of -423 degrees Fahrenheit. Maintaining hydrogen in this form requires special containment methods that alternatives don't require, which adds to the cost of maintaining it for fuel purposes.

That brings us to one of the other biggest challenges for making hydrogen a viable fuel: the infrastructure issue. Most current energy systems are built to move around traditional fuel sources like oil and gasoline and are simply not constructed to support hydrogen. That's a problem if hydrogen is to become a viable, clean alternative to the dirty-burning fuels that we currently rely on because it will need to be moved in large quantities to serve communities. That's not to say it's impossible to build the proper infrastructure for moving it — demand for such a product would motivate companies to undergo the costs of building out the necessary pipelines for transporting the alternative fuel source, and it is projected that the hydrogen market could generate more than $200 billion come 2026 as the search for viable, clean fuel sources continues. But for now, the entire process of harnessing hydrogen remains a challenge and, in part, an unknown.

That makes an experiment like HyDeploy so interesting. Rather than switching entirely over to a hydrogen-based system, scientists have found a way to blend the clean burning energy source with existing options. The 20 percent blend utilized by the system will reportedly utilize the same burning process that standard gas requires and won't necessitate an overhaul in the infrastructure in order to put it to use. It's a small test, and one that is not entirely clean, but one that presents a stepping stone to fully green energy — and one that eliminates a chunk of the greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise be produced.

It's possible that hydrogen becomes cheap enough to harness, store, transport, and use that one day it becomes viable on its own. But until then, solutions like HyDeploy serve a purpose in moving us in the right direction. And while hydrogen certainly presents a significant amount of promise, our energy needs are complicated and wide-ranging. The most likely outcome that will bring us to net zero emissions will not be a single solution but rather a combination of renewable energy alternatives — everything from wind and solar power to hydrogen to equally controversial options like nuclear energy. Our best bet is to explore all these options rather than just focusing on one to be a silver bullet.