Hydrogen is the lightest, simplest and most abundant chemical element in the universe. It is present in all animal and vegetable tissue and represents over 75% of all matter as well as 10% of your body mass. On the periodic table, it appears in first position with an atomic number of one (i.e. it has one electron).

Hydrogen's versatility and potential as a clean energy source make it an attractive option for various applications. It is used as a feedstock for the production of a variety of chemicals, such as ammonia, methanol, and hydrogen peroxide. In the electronics industry, it is used to produce semiconductors and flat-panel displays. Hydrogen is used in welding processes to shield the weld from oxygen, preventing oxidation and improving the quality of the weld. It is also used in many other industries for cement manufacturing, mining, steel production, in aerospace where it is used as a propellant for rockets and as a coolant for nuclear reactors, etc. 

Hydrogen has never really been produced or used in big quantities on the African continent. A number of countries, notably South Africa and Morocco produce grey hydrogen, which is used in the mining and fertiliser sectors. That is set to change. 

Following recent Conference of the Parties (COP) gatherings, hydrogen has suddenly emerged as an important element of the just energy transition. Green hydrogen produced through renewable energy sources offers a sustainable and climate-friendly option for its many applications. Experts believe that even if electric cars with their lithium ion batteries already have a head start on hydrogen vehicles, it can still be used in aviation, in ships to transport goods and in heavy industrial processes. The argument is that hydrogen fuel cells are employed to power our airplanes, ships, trains and heavy factory equipment, that is still a game changer. 

The demand for hydrogen in highly industrialised countries has grown exponentially in recent times. According to the World Bank, the hydrogen production market was valued at $130 billion in 2021 and is estimated to grow up to 9.2% per year through 2030. Those are really big numbers. 

Germany recently launched procurement tenders worth in excess of 10 billion Euro. A number of African countries – notably South Africa, Namibia, Egypt and Morocco are ramping up plans to start exporting green hydrogen. 

Exporting green hydrogen can provide a new source of revenue. However, it is not a straightforward decision as exporting countries first need to have a lot of green electricity to produce green hydrogen. In countries like South Africa where the ageing coal fleet is becoming more and more unreliable, some people believe that the government’s priority should be to keep the lights on. 

Wat do you think? This short video discusses the science behind hydrogen before looking at the role that Africa can/should play in the hydrogen value chain.