Editor’s note: If you haven’t noticed, we don’t write much about hydrogen fuel cells here on CleanTechnica. Quite frankly, it’s got some big hurdles that we’re not so sure it can overcome — at least, no time soon (and we need clean transportation to roll out soon). Nonetheless, this guest post offered up by one of our readers seems pretty on point. It does a good job outlining hydrogen’s key obstacles, but also notes the minor progress that is being made and some recent announcements. Have a look and tell us what you think:
by J.C. Mac
“Just tell them their fuel bill could be reduced by 15 – 20%,” I said to my friend, a long-distance lorry driver. We’d been discussing fuel alternatives for a few hours as my friend — also the chairman of his local green-watch committee — wanted to convince his employers to convert his HGV, currently guzzling dirty diesel for 8 to 10 hours each day, to LPG fuel.
Though LPG does offer significant savings on fuel bills, my friend’s bosses were not ‘financially equipped to transform their fleet’ – a to-be-expected response, really.
But it’s not just about the money.
Whilst the savings one can make from choosing a more environmentally friendly fuel supply stand for themselves — UK diesel costs, on average, 144.47 pence per litre; petrol costs 140.13 pence per litre; and LPG costs 74.21 pence per litre — the greatest benefit of LPG or other alternative fuels over diesel and petrol is the reduced impact on the environment. LPG, for instance, despite also being a fossil fuel, burns much cleaner than its dirty competitors.
A few weeks later my friend was sporting a badge saying ‘I’m L.P.Great’ and told me he’d converted his own car to LPG, thereby offsetting some of the damage done during his long-distance driving.
We then discussed hydrogen as an alternative to other fossil fuel products and he told me his bosses had investigated this as an alternative, but were concerned that hydrogen is still mainly extracted via fossil fuels.
Whilst hydrogen cell fuel vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions – they only produce heat and water vapour – there is a fundamental issue that has plagued hydrogen production for decades; around 48% of global hydrogen is still produced through steam reforming of hydrocarbons (such as natural gas), which releases carbon dioxide as a by-product into the environment.
So just as important as knowing how your four-minute eggs were farmed, it’s as crucial to know how your hydrogen was produced. Unfortunately, most hydrogen produced in the world today is neither renewable nor clean.
Nonetheless, it is possible to produce ‘green’ hydrogen through renewable electrolysis, a process that uses renewable electricity to produce hydrogen when an electrical current is passed through water.
As the UK government, like many others across the EU, recognise more must be done to end an extant ignorant reliance on fossil fuels and dirty energy, green-fuel development (especially in the transport industry) has seen a boost in the financial backing of new initiatives.
As for my friend’s bosses being resistant to investing in a hydrogen-powered transportation infrastructure, there still remains (alongside the non-green production methods) a series of obstacles to overcome.
Good and Bad Side to Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles
- A fuel cell has simple construction, is less complicated than a conventional gas or diesel engine, so mass production costs would become extremely low.
- It is not subject to high temperatures, corrosion, or any of the structural weaknesses found in other engines.
- It runs quietly, and its sole tailpipe emission is water vapor.
- Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are far more energy efficient than gasoline-fueled vehicles, with double the efficiency of internal combustion engines.
Obstacles to Overcome
- In order to introduce hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, it is not only vehicle technology that must be changed, but also the entire fuel supply and distribution system. This doesn’t come cheaply. Conceptually, replacing the current oil-based infrastructure with hydrogen would cost billions of dollars.
- Although abundant in the universe, hydrogen is fairly rare in our atmosphere, meaning that it has to be extracted (for example through electrolysis, as explained above) and currently, the process is not cost efficient.
- On-board storage is a major issue. A hydrogen tank would currently be too large for a standard passenger car.
- It is very flammable, which further adds to the on-board storage issues.
UK Projects Accelerate ‘Green’ Hydrogen Energy
Five UK initiatives will demonstrate how the use of fuel cell systems and hydrogen technologies in low-carbon energy systems and transportation can be integrated with other energy and transport components, such as renewable energy generation, refuelling infrastructure, and vehicles, to develop holistic systems working together.
“These projects will complement the joint government/industry project UKH2Mobility, which is currently evaluating potential rollout scenarios for hydrogen for transport in the UK,” says Mark Prisk, former Minister of State for Business and Enterprise.
The projects involve:
BOC, the industrial gases and clean energy business, will provide refuelling technology for Scotland’s first fleet of hydrogen-powered buses. Scottish & Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) will work with BOC to harness the electricity from a nearby wind farm to power a 1MWe electrolyser to split ordinary water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen produced will be stored for use with the bus fleet and can even be converted back to electricity to supplement mains supplies at times of peak demand.
The creation of the UK’s first end-to-end, integrated, ‘green’ hydrogen production, distribution and retailing system, centred around a fully publically accessible, state-of-the-art, 700-bar (10 000 psi) renewable hydrogen refuelling station network across London (led by Air Products Plc).
The delivery of solar-energy-generated hydrogen for Swindon’s existing public-access hydrogen refuelling station via an electrolyser, and its use in materials-handling vehicles and light vans at Honda’s manufacturing plant (led by BOC).
The integration, in the Isle of Wight, of an electrolyser-based refueller with renewable energy, enabling zero-carbon hydrogen to be produced for use as a transport fuel for a range of vehicles as part of the Ecoisland project (led by ITM Power).
The demonstration of a viable solar–hydrogen energy system, with benefits shared by multiple end-users of a business park in Surrey, through the 24/7 provision of green electricity and heat (led by Rutland Management Ltd, which operates Dunsfold Park and Aerodrome, home of AFC Energy).
Honda — An Ambassador of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology?
To encourage greater take-up of hydrogen fuel cell technology, there is a need for more corporate-funded initiatives to, amongst other things, help expand the number of hydrogen filling stations on our highways.
Ambassadors within the vehicle industry are also essential to establish greater commitment towards developing cost-efficient, mass-market vehicles and clean hydrogen production technologies.
Honda recently announced it will apply learning from its fuel cell pilot programs to launch a mass-market vehicle powered by hydrogen in 2015.
The fuel cell car will be built as either a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback and will be powered by an electric motor, with the fuel cell in place of a conventional EV’s battery.
Whether or not this is a clever press stunt by Honda executives keen to boost general sales, one has to acknowledge a giant step forward towards offering consumers another alternative to fossil fuels.