Hydrogen Gas to Power Africa?

Dernière mise à jour : 9 nov. 2018

Big Dipper or Plough Asterism
The Big Dipper or Plough Asterism

Hydrogen Gas to Power Africa?

Source: BBC - Earth

What the image above depicts is an asterism of the constellation Ursa Major called the Big Dipper. Asterisms are patterns of stars that are recognizable from Earth and one of the best-known asterisms is the Big Dipper or Plough.

I have always been fascinated by the Plough. The principal reason of that captivation is that the pattern was everywhere! This question mark was visible in the night sky of every country I had the privilege to visit. All of them! Before noticing, I was reading all sorts of articles on the universe to figure out why.

Hydrogen in the universe

Source: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope 2010, The Dark Universe: Dark Matter & Dark Energy, , LSST Corporation, Tucson, AZ, viewed 2nd April, 2010, <http://www.lsst.org/lsst/public/learn>.

As shown in the above chart, the universe is composed largely of dark matter (~25%) and dark energy (~70%). The rest is filled with ordinary matter, including stars, planets, dust and gas, only making up a tiny fraction of the universe (5%).

Hydrogen and helium gas (accounting for 4% of the universe) are the most abundant elements in the universe . This element is found in great abundance in stars and gas giant planets. It is therefore good to know that stars are giant ball of mostly hydrogen and helium gas that shines brightly. In fact, stars shine because of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium which powers the vast majority of stars illuminating the entire cosmos (see here) ! In other words, the Big Dipper is visible thanks to the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium.

Hydrogen on Earth

As mentioned, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. But here on Earth, hydrogen and helium combined constitute less than 1% of our world by mass compared to other heavier elements (oxygen, nitrogen, etc.) (source).

Hydrogen gas is therefore produced industrially for various uses.

Air Liquide Plant Source: https://www.airliquide.com/industry/desulfurization-0

Production and Use of hydrogen gas

Industrial production of hydrogen is mainly from steam reforming of natural gas and from the electrolysis of water. The latter method is more energy-intensive.

Steam reforming of natural gas (methane CH4)

Electrolysis of water

The gas that is obtained is at standard temperature and pressure, colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, highly combustible that can be used as a fuel.

Liquid hydrogen, for instance, when is mixed with pure oxygen, can be used as fuel in rockets. In recent years, there have been important development in Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCV) that use hydrogen as a fuel. Toyota Miraiis a good example of an HFCV.

Hydrogen fuel being a zero-emission fuel when burned with oxygen, is considered an alternative clean fuel of the future. However, one should not overlook the fact that since there is very little free hydrogen gas, hydrogen is in practice only an energy carrier, like electricity, not an energy resource (source). Hydrogen gas is produced, and the production always requires more energy than can be retrieved from the gas as a fuel later on (source). Most Hydrogen production induces environmental impacts (source).

Hydrogen fuel used in a rocket

Toyota Mirai: Mid-size hydrogen fuel cell car manufactured by Toyota

Project Gazbougou in Mali

This is due to hydrogen power relying on either some kind of hydrogen fuel cell or on hydrogen gas, which until recent times, wasn’t believed to be in the earth’s crust in great quantities, nor in the earth’s atmosphere in clean or usable form.

In July 2015, three years after their first successful test, the Petroma Company demonstrated how hydrogen gas can be used to generate power, by lighting up part of the village of Bourakebougou not far from the capital Bamako in Mali, the eighth largest country in Africa. This has created almost 100% clean electricity in a poor rural area that did not have any access to electricity, something that would have hardly seemed plausible only a decade ago. In doing so, Petroma is not only reigniting the debate about alternative energy, it is also showing the world that even a poor African country can be innovative and turn to renewable fuels and prevent the massive pollution that comes with the fossil fuels used today.

The idea of this fascinating gas to be used for providing clean energy to Africa is tremendously exciting. The project Gazbougou needs more attention from the scientific community and cleantech investors.

The most abundant gas in the universe could help the most abundant energy poor on Earth, lift themselves out of poverty.

Auteur: Makhan Sacko

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