Local production of hydrogen as a fuel for rural communities

Almost 20% of the world’s population has no access to electricity, and the majority of these individuals are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia. Energy poverty is concentrated in rural communities, and correlates with a worldwide distribution of overall extreme poverty. The problem exists over multiple levels, with around 38% of the global population living without clean cooking facilities, to 34% of hospitals operating separate from main-grid electricity. For individuals, long hours collecting fuel can be dangerous, and cooking over inefficient stoves prevents women and girls from pursuing an education or a source of income, perpetrating the poverty cycle in these regions.

With such a large part of the global population living without this basic resource, the team tried to figure out a way to supply energy in the form of hydrogen fuel to off-grid communities in developing countries using artificial photosynthesis. The new technology uses solar energy and water to produce hydrogen which can then be used as a sustainable, reliable and environmentally friendly energy source. This “light in a box” has cheap metal catalysts that enable the water (H2O) to split into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight.

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel at a variety of levels. The team identified three key uses for hydrogen fuel: the household level, the communal level, and as an intermediary to local biofuel production. The technology seemed more economically viable at the intermediary level, but had uses in all instances.

At the household level, the fuel can be used for lighting and cooking. Moving from wood-burning stoves, it would reduce manual labour requirements, have greater heating stability, and low running costs. Using a hydrogen stove also improves air quality within the house, which is particularly useful in close quarters. However, with high upfront costs, and cultural barriers, this might not be the most effective use of this technology. Although hydrogen can be used as alternative to biomass, it requires additional infrastructure like a stove. The team proposed targeting communities that already use biogas as a potential solution, but moved on to wider levels of implementation.

At the communal level, hydrogen fuel can be used as a stand-alone solution to meet the energy demands of a small rural hospital. Dr Andrew Mullett advocates for the use of the technology at the communal level in rural hospitals, as it also produces oxygen which could be very useful for off-grid hospitals that have limited resources. Using the technology in this way does have high investment costs and requires regular maintenance, but it is a more reliable and environmentally friendly energy source that once established has low running costs.

Finally, the team looked at the use of hydrogen fuel production at an intermediary to local biofuel production, linking in with Project Gaia which advocates for cleaner fuel sources. Currently, the biofuel project uses methanol to replace burning biomass as a source of heat.  Using the “light in a box” technology, hydrogen can also be used in the synthesis of biomethanol that is then used as a liquid fuel to meet the local energy demand.  Its main drawback is its high cost, but this could be managed by charitable donations.

Current developers don’t have the commercial product, so the team used a PV system and electrolyser as a proxy. Modelling from this proxy, the team suggested pilot programs in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, as these were the areas suffering the most from energy unavailability.

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Developing local production of fuels for rural communities