Sustainable, efficient, and powerful—many energy experts agree that hydrogen power has the potential to be a major force in the coming years. Hydrogen fuel provides all the convenience and power of fossil fuels (particularly of natural gas) without the carbon dioxide residue. Hydrogen doesn’t require soil-scarring mining projects or deep wells; it’s literally all around us, and can be produced from a wide variety of sources. For a world choking on the dirty legacy that centuries of fossil fuels have left behind, hydrogen seems like the ideal fuel of the future.
But despite its benefits, there are still serious hurdles, especially related to economics and scaling, that must be overcome before hydrogen can really take off, especially for large-scale use-cases. The best thing to do right now is to start small—with societies using hydrogen to power small vehicles, like motorcycles or drones, which will pave the way for additional and larger uses, including for cars, trucks, ships, and factories. These small vehicles, especially drones, avoid some of the challenges associated with hydrogen, including the relatively high cost, and the storage and transportation of this fuel.
Challenges for Wide-Scale Hydrogen Adoption
Among the biggest roadblocks to the mass-scale adoption of hydrogen are production costs. Hydrogen needs to be separated from other elements in nature before it can be used, and accomplishing that requires a fuel source—most commonly natural gas, the very product hydrogen is touted as a replacement for. However, this process can also be powered by coal and oil by-products. Some 95% of the world’s hydrogen fuel is produced from these sources with a technique called steam methane reforming—currently the cheapest and most efficient production method for what is known in the industry as blue or gray hydrogen, usually derived from fossil fuel sources.
But this is an expensive process, with the cost of hydrogen often ending up more than the fossil fuels used to power the process to create it. Hydrogen production costs—especially those for green hydrogen—need to come down significantly, and inroads are being made into lowering those costs—including new innovative technology—but it will likely take time.
Another roadblock to hydrogen adoption is safe storage and transportation. In gas form, its light nature requires expensive, high-pressure tanks; and, when stored in liquid form, it then needs to be kept at very low temperatures, and converted back to gas, also an expensive process. Here, too, science is making great strides, developing more innovative, efficient, and inexpensive storage methods. Many of these technologies for production, transportation, and storage appear very promising, and could help make hydrogen the fuel of the future. But the key word here is “future.”
The Power of Small Use-Cases, Including Drones
Currently, hydrogen is being produced in relatively small volumes, and it just isn’t on the radar of society in the same way that, for example, electric vehicles are. That could change, though, with the adoption of hydrogen in specific sectors. Manufacturers could emphasize hydrogen as a good solution for small vehicles like motorcycles and drones. Converting these vehicles to hydrogen would be relatively easy compared to cars, trucks, or ships—and would get people used to the idea of hydrogen as a viable fuel.
Small vehicles, including drones are particularly suited for hydrogen because they use very little of the fuel at one time, making them practical first-use cases even without mass-scale produced hydrogen, large hydrogen storage solutions, or fueling networks. For example, several companies, including Plug Power, can set up on-site hydrogen production systems that make sufficient fuel from renewable sources for drones. Because drones often operate as fleets, with refueling done as part of scheduled operations, there are fewer pain points for implementing hydrogen than there are for cars and trucks, which would need refueling stations across the country at convenient roadside locations.
Drones and other small innovative mobility systems are also ripe for leading first-adopter industries to embrace hydrogen because these industries are also young and their standards, designs, and ecosystems are still emerging. Drones haven’t been around long enough to become standardized the way cars and trucks are, making it easier to design them around hydrogen. Most disruptive technologies start in areas where the markets are new or small, and drones and other emerging mobility systems fit this pattern.
Hydrogen: An Ideal Fuel for Drones
In addition to the environmental benefits of green hydrogen, this fuel is especially suited to drones and other small mobility solutions because hydrogen allows for longer travel times, more power, and heavier payloads than batteries do. Hydrogen fuel makes drones an even more practical and efficient solution for applications like search-and-rescue missions, which often require long periods of flight, and cargo delivery. This, too, follows the typical pattern for innovation—starting with smaller markets, but offering game-changing advantages.
Ultimately, the use of hydrogen in drones and other small use-cases will prove that hydrogen works, and offer a chance to work through some of the challenges, including the cost of production and storage. Eventually, this could likely spur manufacturers of bigger vehicles to invest even more in hydrogen-fueled vehicles, in response to the likely increased demand that will result as people begin to understand and see the benefits of hydrogen. A hydrogen future means a much cleaner future, and it’s just around the corner. Now is the time to develop the infrastructure for that future—and prepare society to embrace it—and that is best done by starting small.
—Bentzion Levinson is CEO and founder of HevenDrones.