Hydrogen presents a promising solution as a fuel for the future. Many experts think it has the potential to be a game changer in achieving decarbonization goals, especially if it is labeled green or even white or gold. The recent spike in investments into research and exploration of its feasibility are proof of high hopes for the alternative fuel.
Hydrogen is a flammable gas first identified as a distinct element in 1766; the colour label assigned to it relates to how the hydrogen is sourced or created and if the production process itself results in lesser carbon emissions than conventional methods of generating the gas.
A transition to hydrogen as an energy source at scale would call for expertise in handling the gas in new areas. Consequently, IECEx, the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres, is expected to play an important role in continuing to ensure everyone’s safety in dealing with the flammable gas.
Which hydrogen colour is clean?
The magic of getting to a clean fuel is in the process: green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis, where the electrical energy required is coming not from coal or fossil fuels but from a renewable energy source like the wind or the sun. By contrast white hydrogen refers to naturally occurring reserves of underground hydrogen. The term gold is given specifically to hydrogen produced by microbial activities in depleted oil wells. White and gold hydrogen could therefore be potentially cleaner than conventional ways of producing hydrogen.
Even up until a year ago, there wasn’t much enthusiasm or expectation amongst experts for white and gold hydrogen to become a mainstream option. However, this could be changing. More and more researchers are seeing possible hope in white or gold hydrogen as feasible alternatives to conventional emission intensive fuels. One of the biggest endorsements has come from the US Department of Energy (DOE) which announced up to $20 million to funding research around the potential of geologic hydrogen.
In October 2023, scientists at the US Geological Survey presented research that suggested that the Earth contains far more hydrogen than previously thought. Other geologists also think there might be untapped reservoirs of white hydrogen across the US, Australia and parts of Europe. Such developments have generated a renewed interest in the area.
It must be kept in mind, though, that there is a long way to go before understanding if white hydrogen really is a clean source of energy overall. More work needs to be done to evaluate the impact of extracting geologic hydrogen and estimate how energy intensive it is.
Exciting developments ahead
The Research and Development wing of the US DOE, ARPA-E, is optimistic about new methodologies and avenues that may accelerate our understanding of generating and extracting clean hydrogen. “When it comes to geologic hydrogen, we’re asking are there disruptive ways to access this hydrogen source and explore the potential?," says ARPA-E Director Evelyn N. Wang in a press release. She explains that there might be opportunities for accelerating the development of hydrogen production. Using stimulated mineralogical processes could yield larger quantities of subsurface hydrogen that could be a substantial source for clean energy.
The funding contributes to two areas of exploratory topics: the first is to develop technologies to stimulate subsurface hydrogen production; and the second focuses on the extraction of geologic hydrogen and risks involved.
Ensuring safety with IECEx
In the wake of these emerging technologies, one of the biggest risks to tackle will be the safety in the use and handling of the flammable gas.
IECEx, a conformity assessment system set up to deal with the testing and certification to IEC, ISO/IEC and ISO International Standards relating to equipment for use in explosive atmospheres, has always been relied upon by the hydrogen economy since its inception.
“As a flammable substance, equipment, services and competence of persons in areas associated with hydrogen have been covered by IECEx certification since IECEx began issuing certificates in 2003 with more than 30 000 certificates issued to date,” says IECEx Executive Secretary, Chris Agius.
IECEx’s role in achieving sustainability goals with hydrogen
IECEx will have a pivotal role to play in ensuring safety around processes and handling while bringing the emerging technologies to market.
The increased focus on hydrogen as a future energy source has seen IECEx partnering with other international organizations including ISO, in particular ISO TC 197/SC1, with whom IECEx has established a formal partnership, as well as an on-going close collaboration with IRENA with current work focused on developing position papers which will be considered during the upcoming COP 28 in Dubai.
IECEx oversees the compliance with international standards that address hydrogen safety, and its certification continues to be a valuable tool for facilitating trade at national levels and across international markets.
The conformity assessment system thus contributes to SDG 9 (for Industry, innovation and infrastructure) by supporting innovation and development in the hydrogen sector. It also advances the SDG 11 for making cities and human settlements safe, resilient and sustainable.
By enabling safe access to hydrogen, IECEx enables affordable and clean energy, which is the objective of SDG 7. The use of green, white or gold hydrogen can prove to be an alternative fuel that can be used in versatile applications such as power generation, transportation, heating or other industrial processes. Since it can be stored, it is also a great option for off-grid power supply setups and enabling rural electrification.
Naturally, clean sources of fuels being added to the global energy mix mean reduced greenhouse gas emissions. With expansion of hydrogen in the fuel market, IECEx certification allows manufacturers and consumers to gain confidence in international markets and helps accelerate the establishment of an energy infrastructure with more clean fuels. This translates to significant contributions to the goal of SDG13 in mitigating the impact of climate change.
Only time will tell if the safe extraction of geologic hydrogen will become a mainstream alternative to substantially reduce our carbon emissions. Whatever the outcome in the long run, IECEx will be there to make sure it is used and handled safely.