Fuelling a myth

Hydrogen will never be the clean fuel saviour. There is neither the will nor a way to create technology for it – in fact politicians are merely paying lip service to its use.

Talk of a hydrogen revolution is no more than an elaborate piece of window dressing and will never result in the new clean fuel economy that many people hope for.

An investigation by The Engineer reveals that hydrogen will never be the panacea for today’s fuel and environmental crisis.

There is simply not enough financial or governmental backing behind hydrogen – and the indications are that in the coming decades the technology to harness its use will be dropped by the automotive, oil and gas industries.

Lack of renewable energy to produce sufficient amounts of hydrogen and the expense of installing a viable infra-structure to distribute it suggest that hydrogen will only ever be used in fleet or specialist automotive applications.

Recent announcements of extra cash for hydrogen fuel cell research in the US and similar proposals expected in the UK government’s energy white paper this month represent only a fraction of the cost of getting every motorist off petrol and diesel and on to cleaner technologies.

Many believe that hydrogen is being used to distract public attention from more immediate changes that could have a greater effect on carbon emissions but are less palatable to business. Environmental groups also claim that car and petrochemical firms promote the hydrogen option because they know that it would be many decades before a workable system could ever be contemplated (see sidebar).

In practical terms the only way hydrogen could realistically be used to fuel the world’s cars would be by reforming natural gas at petrolstations. But this is unlikely as it would require a huge investment in infrastructure, and a question mark hangs over the long-term supplies of cheap natural gas.

A report published this month by the government’s Energy Saving Trust concluded that there was no carbon-reduction benefit in adopting hydrogen in the near future. The Fuelling Road Transport report – based on work by the Trust, the Institute for European Environmental Policy and the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection – echoes comments made last year by minister for transport, local government and the regions David Jamieson. He said that renewable sources of hydrogen would not be available on a large enough scale until after 2050.

Fuel cell researchers agree the technology will not be ready for decades and the car industry estimates it will take 10-15 years to market.

The problems with hydrogen are numerous. Even turning the gas into a usable form is not easy: extraction of hydrogen from oil, natural gas, water or biomass is energy intensive and expensive. Refinement and transportation then add to that energy bill. Storage is also problematic and refuelling a vehicle is potentially dangerous. Finally, fuel cell technology itself is still an expensive prototype curiosity.

One 40-year veteran of fuel cell design is very sceptical of hydrogen as society’s energy solution. Alfred Tsueng, research professor at the University of Greenwich’s school of chemical and life sciences, said, ‘You can’t dig a hole and get hydrogen. There are only two ways to create it: hydrocarbon fuels, which have to be converted producing CO2, which is not green; and the electrolysing of water, but you might need energy from hydrocarbons to do that.’

Environmentalists have argued that renewable technology could be used for electrolysing water. But researchers at Imperial College London claim this would be 20 times more expensive than today’s cheapest option, which is to extract it from methane, or natural gas. Hydrogen from solar-powered electrolysis will, the study estimated, cost up to £60 per Giga joule, while methane-derived hydrogen could cost just £3 per gigajoule. One gigajoule is equivalent to five gallons (25 litres) of petrol.

Dr Ausilio Bauen, a research fellow at ICL’s centre for energy policy and technology, has studied the costs of introducing hydrogen as a major fuel for the UK economy. ‘The most cost-effective method is from natural gas and hydrogen’s large-scale production from steam reformation. There has been longstanding production of hydrogen by the chemical industry.’

Companies such as Shell and BP Amoco have trumpeted their investment in hydrogen. But when we asked how long the research has been going on and how much it has cost, the response was vague. Some figures were offered for 1999 onwards, but no more. Shell’s spokesman refused to give even a ballpark figure on what has been invested, and BP admitted only to $10m (£6m) for this financial year.

Compared to the firm’s turnover, measured in the billions, and its normal R&D budgets, its hydrogen research is tiny.

Steven Taub, director of electricity research at the US Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Massachusetts, is sceptical of industry’s intentions. ‘The oil companies and car makers are not doing this because they want to kill it. But they don’t know it is the future either. It’s an insurance policy. They are investing so they can’t lose out.’

US President George Bush is helping them to avoid losing out with two funding programmes worth $1.7bn (£1bn) over the next five years. The Freedom Co-operative Automotive Research, or CAR and Fuel Initiative, aims to develop the technologies and infrastructure to produce and distribute hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles. Although Bush said in his State of the Union address that the money would mean fuel cell cars on US roads by 2020, the funding has not been approved by congress.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the US department of energy said that it was conceivable that the total amount of funding announced would in fact be cut.Many US engineers and researchers are also not convinced the effort will result in viable hydrogen cars. for all. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which claims to have 50,000 members, has called for far more cash. ‘An Apollo-[like] project is needed to hasten the arrival of fuel cell vehicles, but the administration’s proposed budget isn’t enough to get to the launching pad,’ said Jason Mark, the Union’s clean vehicles programme director. ‘While a few hundred million dollars in research investments is an important downpayment on the future, truly realising a hydrogen future will require a far greater infusion of government support.’

In the UK the situation is similar. According to a DTI spokesman the energy white paper should indicate an increase in hydrogen development investment. But will that be enough?

Bauen said categorically not: ‘There has been a serious increase in recent years in the amount of money that has gone into it, increased public, private and capital venture funds, but it’s not enough.’ He estimates that the cost of a hydrogen network is beyond the range of any one company – and even beyond many government budgets. ‘To put in the infrastructure will cost many billions.’

The fragmented approach to the development of hydrogen technologies is also a problem, according to Phil Gott, director of automotive consulting at economic forecast firm Global Insight. ‘We have a chicken-and-egg problem. If there is no technology available to use the fuel, then why should anyone invest in infrastructure? And if there’s no infrastructure, why should anyone invest in fuel technology?’

Even with a gas transportation system in place the problem with sending hydrogen through a pipe network is that it weakens steel. Agents can be added to the hydrogen to reduce that but pipes still need to last to justify the investment. The hydrogen could be compressed and refrigerated into a liquid and carried in tanker trucks but that generates further costs.

Natural gas, on the other hand, does have an infrastructure. One option would be to extract hydrogen from natural gas, but at the point of sale rather than at the well. Filling stations and private homes could be equipped with reforming technology to extract the fuel from methane. In a steam reformer the methane reacts with water vapour to produce hydrogen. Other by-products, like carbon dioxide, could be contained to limit the impact on the environment.

But hydrogen and natural gas both have a low energy density. To store enough to supply the average demand from petrol stations would require compression and refrigeration into a liquid form, adding to the already extensive additional energy needs.

Malcolm Fergusson, co-author of the Energy Savings Trust report and a senior fellow in transport and environment studies at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said that due to its low density hydrogen would only be suitable for corporate vehicle fleets. ‘It will work best with fleets, where they have their own depot. There the economics of using compressors is much better. And it’s a known refuelling point so there are no problems with finding a station.’

The other option is to extract hydrogen from gas or petrol onboard the vehicle itself. However, experts admit that onboard reformation is unlikely to catch on. The increased complexity needed for the engine combined with the lower efficiencies expected would count against it. Plus it would be difficult to sequester the CO2, a by-product of reformation, undermining the reason for using hydrogen in the first place.

Whether it is reformed on the forecourt or not there is still the problem of transfer to the vehicle. Natural gas and hydrogen users would need airtight and spark-resistant connection systems between pump and fuel tank.

Car retailers may also have problems overcoming public perception of hydrogen as a dangerous gas. Consumers have to be convinced that a bad crash would not result in an exploding hydrogen fuel tank.

The reality is that there are competing technologies that over the next decades could beat hydrogen on to the streets. To reduce carbon emissions centralising power generation is a major advantage. Electric-battery vehicles could be a better choice, if only their journey range was not so limited.

But while battery technology may not be ready for many years, hybrid electric-petrol vehicles are already available. As most journeys are within a few miles of home the electric motor can power the car, while the petrol engine is used only for longer trips.As a result, many like John Bower, head of electricity research at Oxford University’s Institute for Energy Studies, see little hope for hydrogen. ‘There is a lot of kit about that does almost as well as hydrogen. It will have a niche eventually, but definitely not for the next 20 years.’

The Energy Saving Trust report comes to the same conclusion: ‘In the absence of a large carbon-reduction benefit, there is no strong environmental case for accelerating the introduction of large-scale hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleets ahead of the availability of surplus renewable energy sources.’

So the hydrogen economy is at best a distant hope, but what can be expected in the decades to come? Quite simply a mixed economy of fuels, with no one fuel dominating. The line-up will include natural gas, oil, biofuels – and maybe a little hydrogen.

Sidebar: The largest obstacle to a renewable energy future

The hydrogen funding initiative announced by George Bush in his recent State of the Union address came with a promise to reduce carbon emissions within 20-30 years. But are these promises of a cleaner, brighter future nothing more than a tactic to distract public attention from demanding more immediate changes that are less palatable to business?

The president is a firm ally of the petroleum producers currently opposing regulations that would enforce improved fuel efficiency in new vehicles. If these were put in place, even in the very short term the payoff from an improved fuel economy would be huge, cutting pollution and reducing US dependence on imported oil.

According to Ron Hodkinson, founder of Watford-based fuel cell producers Fuel Cell Control, the current system does not give cleaner fuels a chance to break into the car market. ‘The fuel market is distorted, especially for vehicles in the US,’ he said. ‘In the UK the customer pays the true cost of petrol at the pumps, but in the US they only pay a third. The cost of protecting resources, building roads and health problems from pollution is covered by the Federal Government with money from general taxation.

‘This means that at the point of customer choice alternatives can’t compete. The influence of the oil industry on their present leader means this is unlikely to change.’The result, he said, is a system where consumers have no incentive to buy more efficient cars, so manufacturers produce few of them despite having the technology to do so. ‘In the US the degree of energy consumption and waste is massive. But energy companies make money from making this mess then cleaning it up. However, this may change as people see their house insurance policies rocketing in price thanks to the number of natural disasters caused by global warming in years to come.’

Environmental groups are also worried. ‘Hydrogen must be produced using renewable sources of energy if it is to solve the climate problem. We are concerned that it is being promoted by car and petrochemical firms as they know a workable system will be far in the future,’ said Robin Oakley of Greenpeace’s Climate Campaign. ‘Grandstanding on this is a sop to avoid taking immediate action with hybrid cars, better efficiency and biofuels. Non-renewable hydrogen options like onboard petrol reformation are a distraction from developing a fully renewable system. They won’t stop people putting petrol in their cars.

‘If hydrogen is going to deliver, government must take a lead on getting the infrastructure in place to make it happen.’

Meanwhile, any attempt to rely on hydrogen reformed from natural gas could be problematic in the long run. Gas may seem to be the cheapest manufacturing option, but it would not take much for the price of maintaining supplies to increase.

Gas reserves in the North Sea are sizeable, but not enough to feed the energy needs of the entire developed world. The Fuelling Road Transport report notes that the demands of Western Europe alone would make it dependent on additional gas exports from North Africa and Russia. But the former region is politically unstable, while pipelines from the latter would be forced to run through regions where they would be susceptible to terrorism.

To avoid international energy dependence countries could replace large power stations with numerous localised generators performing electrolysis using locally produced wind, wave or waste fired power. But this would require a nationwide rethink, and a massive investment in renewable energy – which is still very unlikely.

Sidebar: Iceland: A clean fuel economy in the making

Iceland is one of the few countries that has a realistic hope of establishing a hydrogen fuel economy based on renewable energy sources in the medium-term future.

It aims to use geothermal power to produce enough hydrogen and electricity to meet its transport and power needs by 2030.

Geothermal energy is harnessed by piping water down to the hot rocks beneath the Earth’s surface. These tend to be relatively close to the surface in Iceland and are a reliable source of heat energy.

The water is turned to steam which is then used to drive a turbine.

The country currently uses just two per cent of its geothermal power resources. However, it hopes to develop this enough to be able to export a surplus of hydrogen at a premium to other European countries. At present two-thirds of Iceland’s energy needs are met from renewable sources. However, the country relies on oil imports to make up the final third that powers the country’s cars and large commercial shipping fleet.

As fish accounts for over half of the nation’s exports Iceland’s economy is firmly linked to the price of oil. So its international competitiveness is reduced if oil prices rise.

To become more self-sufficient, in April the country will take the first step towards an entirely hydrogen-based economy when it launches three fuel cell buses for its public network. The vehicles will refuel with hydrogen at a filling station that produces hydrogen on site through electrolysis powered by geothermal energy and hydroelectric sources.

Tests involving prototype hydrogen-powered fishing vessels are also planned.

Sidebar: History of fuel cell technology

The fuel cell is often referred to as an invention of the US Apollo programme but in fact was created by British physicist William Robert Grove in 1838.

Like a battery, all fuel cells to date have relied on two electrodes, an anode and cathode, which are surrounded by an electrolyte, often a liquid. The cathode and anode act as catalysts to react with hydrogen fuel (which is fed to the anode) and oxygen (fed to the cathode). At the anode the hydrogen atoms split into protons and electrons. The proton passes through the electrolyte and travels to the cathode.

Meanwhile, the electrons form a current that can be diverted for other uses before they return to the cathode, to be reunited with the hydrogen and oxygen to create a molecule of water. Prior to Grove’s invention UK scientists had only described how electricity could break water down into oxygen and hydrogen.

Fuel cell research continued during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually UK engineer Francis Thomas Bacon developed an alkali fuel cell, originally for Royal Navy submarines. This uses compressed hydrogen and oxygen and a potassium hydroxide electrolyte with an operating temperature of 150-200 degrees C. Licensed by US aerospace company Pratt & Whitney, this cell was used for the Apollo space programme.

There are various types of fuel cell, which take slightly different approaches, such as the molten carbonate cell and phosphoric acid cell. But the one most often referred to for modern vehicle propulsion is the proton exchange membrane (PEM) cell. This uses a thin permeable polymer sheet for the electrolyte and works at 80 degrees C.

But the PEM is not necessarily the way of the future. Cell design is expected to adopt the direct fuel method. This allows a cell to use hydrocarbon fuels, such as natural gas, without the need for a reformer to extract its hydrogen content. However, this type of system can only operate at 600 degrees C which represents a major disadvantage compared to PEMs.