Not for the lack of stone*  

* After Ahmed Zaki Yamani, former Saudi Arabian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources (Original quote: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone; and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil”)

Oliver Busch, head of the Incubation Cluster Defossilation, shares his thoughts about the upcoming end of the oil age and hydrogen as one key component in the transition towards a defossilied economy.

Fossil fuels keep the engines of human civilization, as we know it today, running. When did they become such an integral part of our lives? And what may we learn from their history to help us gain independence from fossil resources?

Humankind has known crude oil and coal for thousands of years. However, we have only been using both on a large scale since the 19th century. At that time, hard coal replaced charcoal and fossil oil replaced train oil because these natural and renewable resources were becoming scarcer and thus more expensive. So, the central driver was availability and economic sustainability.

Most experts put the beginning of the commercial oil age in the year 1859 when a successful drilling of a well by Edwin L. Drake in Titusville/Pennsylvania triggered the first oil rush in history. Even today these early days echo through time. For example, in the fact that oil production is still measured in barrels because oil used to be transported in barrels with a volume of approximately 159 liters. Which also illustrates the modest beginnings of the oil age.

The fledgling oil industry faced many fundamental challenges. How do you best access this resource, how can you transport it to the user, how can you process and refine it – and how to do all this in an economically viable way? Oil did not make Edwin Drake a rich man. In the beginning, his well yielded around 25 barrels per day. Today we use about 100,000,000 barrels every day!

Sustainability was the impetus for the use of fossil raw materials and is also the impetus for their use coming to an end. Because what worked for a long time has now become a problem: burning fossil raw materials releases CO2 into the atmosphere and today’s quantities are so large that this negatively impacts our climate. Fossil resources are also finite and if they were no longer available the economic repercussions would be massive. Good reasons to set out now and find different, better ways to keep the engines of human civilization running.

We already know that renewable energies are the path to take. The World Energy Investment Report 2022 released by the International Energy Agency (iea) shows that investments in renewable energies supersede those in fossil fuels this year, a trend that iea experts believe will increase significantly over the course of this decade (graphic p. 24 in the report:

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), hydrogen has a special role to play here. Because for one it simply is the only viable way to avoid CO2 emissions in some areas such as in steel and fertilizer production or for air travel. What’s more, hydrogen can be produced by splitting water using (renewable) electricity, thus making renewable energy storable and transportable. In a world supposed to run 100% based on renewable energies this is vital. Because obviously there is no place where the sun always shines, or the wind always blows.

By 2050 we will need around 5000 Gigawatt of water electrolysis capacity for hydrogen production worldwide, according to IRENA, – today’s capacity is 0.3 Gigawatt. Even if there is still a long way to go, the hydrogen era has already begun.

Interestingly, we see the same challenges in the start-up phase of the hydrogen era that we encountered at the beginning of the oil era: how to develop the resource, how to transport it to the user, how to process and refine the resource - and all this in an economically viable way.

These are the topics my team and I are working on intensively. Because Evonik wants to help the hydrogen economy achieve a breakthrough as an enabler. At Creavis, Evonik's strategic innovation unit and business incubator, we are working on novel technologies to make the cost of climate-neutral hydrogen competitive, we are developing and qualifying materials for an efficient and safe hydrogen infrastructure, and we are building this new Evonik business together with partners from the emerging hydrogen value chain.

From now on, I will report more frequently on what and how we do this.