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Although the idea of using hydrogen might be new to some, hydrogen gas has been used for decades in industry to make a wide range of products. 70 million tonnes of hydrogen are produced worldwide each year (as well as 48 million tonnes created as a by-product from other industrial processes), enough to heat every home in Europe. As of 2019, nearly all of this hydrogen is produced from fossil fuelsMaterials containing carbon, formed long ago by geological processes acting on the remains of living organisms. Examples include coal and natural gas . The global market for hydrogen production is growing and worth over $115bn (£90bn) – growth could speed up if hydrogen is needed for new applications like heat and transport.

Current uses for hydrogen

Today, the most common uses for hydrogen are:

  1. Petroleum refining – reducing the amount of harmful sulphur oxides contained in fuels, as well as for splitting crude oil into useful hydrocarbonsA class of chemical compounds made of hydrogen and carbon such as ethane and liquid petroleum gas
  2. AmmoniaA toxic industrial chemical made of hydrogen and nitrogen, often used to make fertilisers. Chemical formula NH3 production – this is one of the three key ingredients in fertilisers. This allows us to grow food in fields that would normally lack key nutrients
  3. Methanol production – a useful chemical used in paints, fabrics and fibres
  4. Steel production – hydrogen is used in the steel making process, and engineers are testing ways of using it to replace coal entirely
  5. Other minor uses include parts of the manufacturing process for plastics, resins, flat sheets of glass and silicon microchips, as well as a coolant for large electrical generators



Space travel

Hydrogen was first used for space exploration by NASA in the 1960s and it has remained an important part of space travel ever since. NASA and the European Space Agency both use hydrogen as a propellant in rocket fuel, as it is very light and burns at a high temperature. Hydrogen fuelA device that produces electricity from a chemical reaction between oxygen and another substance cells are also used as a power source for spacecraft and space vehicles. On the Space Shuttle, three fuel cells were used to power all the electronics in the craft. As a bonus, fuel cells produce water as a waste product, which can be consumed by astronauts.


Safety and regulations

Industrial companies have been using hydrogen since the 1930s, when the gas was first used as a generator coolant by the Dayton Power & Light Co. in Ohio, USA. Over the following years, companies and governments have worked together to create regulations and codes that ensure using hydrogen is safe and low risk. There are at least 16 international bodies developing guidance and over 400 different standards worldwide supporting hydrogen development and deployment. This covers everything from how to store hydrogen securely, to regulations on the types of pipes and valves used. Although these regulations were designed for business and industry, this know-how can also be applied when using hydrogen in new areas, such as safely heating a home.

Other industrial uses for hydrogen

If current trends continue, the amount of hydrogen needed in industry is set to grow as the world uses more steel, methanol, ammonia and petroleum products each year. There are possible new roles for hydrogen too – because it burns at a very high temperature, hydrogen gas could replace fossil fuels entirely in some high-temperature (over 400°C) industrial applications, such as steel making and fuelling cement kilns.

About one third of all the hydrogen produced today is a by-product from industrial processes, such as the production of chlorine, propane and high-octane fuels. This hydrogen can be used for making methanol and steel. However, as it contains small amounts of other gases (carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane or argon), it is not pure enough for use in fuel cells or petroleum refining without further treatment.


New jobs and skills

Supporters of hydrogen argue that if it is used more widely, it would create a significant number of skilled jobs. Producing and transporting hydrogen could boost the construction, manufacturing and machinery industries; skilled technical workers will be needed at companies making hydrogen technology, vehicles and appliances. Countries which are early adopters of hydrogen could have the opportunity to capitalise on intellectual property, knowledge and skills.

In the UK, a number of new hydrogen projects are based in existing industrial areas. This is practical, as there are intensive energy users (e.g. steel production), and a local population that have the skills to be re-trained to work with hydrogen. Often, industrial centres are in a geographically beneficial position due to their location near salt mines (for storage) and the coast (for carbon capture usage and storageThe process of trapping carbon dioxide from waste gases or the atmopshere, and then utilising it or storing it safely and permanently capabilities).


Examples include the HyNet Project, which aims to develop hydrogen for heating, power and transport in the north west of England, expected to create 5000 new jobs by 2025; and the Zero Carbon Humber project, centred around making hydrogen at an industrial hub in the north east of England, an area that has suffered economically as steel, coal and manufacturing employment has been lost.