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The pathway to hydrogen cars

At the start of the Olympics, a story appeared in some news sources sneering at the fact that London’s new hydrogen-fuelled taxis had to be transported to Swindon to be refuelled, negating any carbon saving they provided. While admittedly something of a PR blunder, this wasn’t quite the failure of planning and technology that those who wrote the articles tried to portray it as: the London refuelling station was merely a day late in opening and the taxis had already been booked to carry VIPs across the capital.

When it comes to hydrogen and other low-carbon energy alternatives, it’s common to hear sceptical scoffing like this. ‘It’ll never be cost-effective,’ the naysayers exclaimed. ‘It’s not made with renewable energy so what’s the point?’ Of course, these are issues that have to be addressed if hydrogen is to become a viable way of cutting CO2 emissions. But getting to that point requires intermediate steps. It requires companies willing to invest for the long term and to develop production and distribution systems that minimise losses and can pave the way for genuinely green hydrogen.

‘We’re using brown hydrogen [from non-renewable sources] to demonstrate the technology and to improve the infrastructure,’ said Diana Raine, European business manager for hydrogen at Air Products, the company that supplies the gas for the London taxis. ‘When the market is there, then we’ll invest in green hydrogen but we can only do that if the pathway to green production is there.

‘We want to prove the technology at the lowest possible cost. The London refuelling station uses brown hydrogen, which provides a 50 per cent CO2 reduction compared with existing taxis. But we’ve made a commitment up front with Transport for London to improve the existing production line and eventually go green.’

According to rough market projections made by sustainable energy consultancy E4tech, there could be 1.5 million hydrogen cars on the road globally by 2020 and 35m by 2030. How will this happen when battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (EVs) are already starting to creep into the market? E4tech director David Hart, who is also a principal research fellow at Imperial College London, argues that hydrogen will target a section of the market that EVs can’t reach.

‘A pure EV makes sense for a limited range where you have the capability to recharge slowly because it’s the most efficient way of converting renewable electricity into transport fuel.’ But for people who consistently travel long distances, a hydrogen vehicle would be much more suitable because it doesn’t need filling up as often and that process, at around three minutes, is much quicker than recharging a battery.

A recent EU study found that, based on current driving patterns, battery-powered EVs would only be able to replace 50 per cent of cars in Europe. This represents only 25 per cent of vehicle emissions because larger cars used more for long journeys produce far more CO2.

Add to this the developing markets for public transport, forklift trucks in warehouses, low-carbon generators for back-up supplies and remote operations such as mobile phone masts and even internal power systems for submarines, and the reasons for (eventually) investing in green hydrogen production become even stronger. There’s also the prospect of energy storage — an undeveloped sector but one that will be vital for managing the intermittency of renewable electricity generation.

Although genuinely green hydrogen isn’t yet widely available, industrial gas companies do have potential solutions in the pipeline. Already in the process of replacing production facilities with more efficient designs to cut CO2 emissions by up to 20 per cent at each one, Air Products is also developing plants that use waste gas as their feedstock.

Following the opening of a biogas-fuelled power, heat and hydrogen facility in California, the company is preparing for a 2014 opening of the Tees Valley Renewable Energy Plant, which will gasify landfill waste to produce syngas for electricity generation. The company then intends to modify this design for another UK plant outputting hydrogen.

Of course, hydrogen has its disadvantages. Refuelling facilities tend to take up a lot of space and use energy to keep the fuel compressed or liquefied. There are regulatory barriers because current standards are based on industrial usage. It’s also difficult to meter and you can’t add an odorant as is done with methane without making it unsuitable for fuel-cell use.

Hydrogen transport is one of those technologies that’s always referred to as being just a few years away — and has been for 20 years. But with several major manufacturers, including Toyota and Daimler, announcing their intentions to make hydrogen cars commercially available by 2015, it seems that this forecast may finally have become accurate.

Readers' comments (33)

  • I hope it doesn't happen, but the first accident in one of these machines resulting in an explosion will set them back years. They are bombs on wheels.

    Any compressed gas is a potential hazard and should carry a warning sign similar to trucks.
    Hydrogen has the added danger of slow seepage through the walls of the fuel tank, which is another hazard if the vehicle is left in a garage for a length of time.

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  • Think of hydrogen as petrol/diesel/CNG/LPG/biofuel without the carbon component. It works in conventional internal combustion engines (and eliminates the need for emissions reduction systems). Back to carburettors, if you like. A hydrogen economy would remove the need for the world's auto industry to retool. And hydrogen could be produced efficiently by thorium nuclear power stations. The downside is that a hydrogen fuelled IC engine produces water vapour at the tailpipe -- not good with icy roads in winder. But, where there's a will there's a way.

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  • @StephenHarris have you come across ITM Power? From what I understand, their units generate hydrogen on site and have been doing so reliably already (see the links on the far right of this page - It uses tap water and electricity for inputs, and has been designed for use with an intermittent power source, so if you have access to renewables, you can have green hydrogen now.

    As to the cost aspects of it, they have already reported that they can generate hydrogen at below the target set by the EU for 2015 (though there are some caveats to this, see official announcement for those -

    Seems to me that being able to generate the hydrogen cleanly on demand and on site is a much more elegant solution than having it centrally produced and then transported to filling stations.

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  • Why don't you research HHO/Brown's Gas systems? You can put this on your car TODAY - have a look at
    I saw one installed on a Jense last week in Leeds - went from 14mpg to 18mpg!! I'll be getting one installed soon to an audi a6. Cost just over a grand and payback under 6 months. AND it's not storing hydrogen but producing it on demand

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  • The worst thing about using pressurized hydrogen is that it has a negative Joule-Thompson coefficient. This means that as it expands it heats up. If the hydrogen is under substantial pressure, any small leak of hydrogen will heat up enough to set itself on fire. Also, the resulting flame jet is almost colorless and difficult to see unless it hits something. I have fought many of these fires at a refinery in know this to be fact.

    Unless they have somehow already overcome this problem, this strikes me as being a particularly dangerous alternative to more conventional systems. Compressed natural gas is a much better choice.

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  • All cars already produce water vapour at the tail pipe so that is hardly a valid objection. As for worrying about slow seepage of H2 from you fuel tank, don't, it will escape far quicker from your garage than it could ever build up.

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  • Hydrogen IS the way forawrd, provided it can be generated cleanly and efficiently. Why not, in place of massive wind-farms offshore, have a barrage of generators producing hydrogen by electrolysis of sea-water -pumped/cooled into barges and then towed ashore for storage/distribution?
    Little or no change to the existing oil-based transport energy structure, and absolutely green.

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  • If hydrogen is stored as a hydride or in a carbon nanotube matrix, it won't be dangerous. Additionally, we won't need the catalyst industry and all the energy needed to refine the precious metals in them. As long as the performance and the filling network becomes availabe eventually, there should be acceptance. Don't forget that we used to buy petrol from pharmacies.

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  • Not mentioned:
    Hydrogen, when released into the atmosphere combines with hydroxyls that otherwise would scrub CH4 from the air. And methane is 28X worse than CO2 as a GWG.

    Why not consider using H-O-O instead of straight hydrogen? You'd get higher heat and efficiency.

    Why not use offshore wind turbines to create hydrogen from water, store it offshore, and have tankers periodically transport it. That would eliminate grid upgrading and overcapacity problems.

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  • EV problem:
    Not discussed is that many of the advanced batteries require rare earth elements (REE) 97% monopolized by China. The manner in which China mines and refines REEs is extremely toxic to the environment, thus, you're shifting from CO2 emissions to more radioactive thorium emissions.

    And using a limited REE supply for EVs means less REE for other perhaps more valuable equipment.

    Journalists should consider the whole issue, not just a selective part.

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  • A valid point. The question is, as with nuclear power, whether we need to accept a different environmentally damaging solution if it's the only realistic way of heading off the pressing issue of cutting CO2 emissions and tackling climate change.

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