Hydrogen could transform the global energy system leveraged as “a more natural substitute” for fossil fuels than renewables in the hard-to-decarbonise transportation and heavy industry sectors, according to new study from the Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy in the US.

Work by researchers at the institute’s Center for Energy Studies concluded that hydrogen has the potential to take on a major role as a zero-carbon energy carrier for an international oil & gas industry that “must adapt and explore paths towards zero-carbon or low-carbon energy and carbon utilisation strategies … if it wishes to remain relevant”.

The study’s authors, Rachel Meidl and Emily Yedinak, noted that by using methane pyrolysis – the direct conversion of greenhouse gas methane in natural gas into hydrogen and carbon nanomaterials – would also help kick-start new supply chains based on “value-added” nanocarbon materials that due to their light weight, strength and conductivity could eventually replace steel, copper and aluminum for industrial use.

“We are transitioning to a new age of human development, one where the environmental and societal consequences must now be balanced with economic ambitions,” said Meidl and Yedinak. “If the fossil fuel industry wishes to remain relevant, it must adapt and explore paths towards zero-carbon or low-carbon energy and carbon utilisation strategies.”

“Unlike solar and wind energy, hydrogen is a more natural substitute for fossil fuels in sectors that are particularly difficult to decarbonise – that is, transportation and industrial,” said Meidl and Yedinak.

“Hydrogen can be produced from several diverse and geographically dispersed resources, and its utility cuts across multiple sectors including metals refining, fuels upgrading and ammonia production,” the authors noted.

“Furthermore, hydrogen fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than internal combustion engines, thereby offering additional energy efficiency gains.”

Meidl and Yedinak caution that “several challenges remain” around safety issues linked to nanomaterial production, including risks of chemical exposure throughout the supply chain “that would need oversight”.

Emergent supply chains for carbon and carbon dioxide will require that companies and governments “weigh the economic benefits with the social costs — determining how the supply chain will affect the environment”, said the study authors.

“Sustainable progress cannot be achieved when health, safety and environmental risks outweigh emissions reductions,” said Meidl and Yedinak.

The US Energy Information Administration projects a 28% increase in average world energy consumption between 2015-2040, with fossil fuels continuing to take up 50-80% of that consumption.