The goal must be the hydrogen society

The fact that the UK Automotive Innovation and Growth team is to support the hydrogen route to low carbon emissions is not as radical as it seems, says Professor Garel Rhys of Cardiff University.

The report that the Automotive Innovation and Growth team is to support the hydrogen route to low carbon emissions is not as radical as it seems. It is some time now since the world automotive industry accepted that it is hydrogen that will provide the answer to the problem of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

However, the goal must be the hydrogen society, and to achieve this in the most efficient way and making best use of the world’s scarce resources will take decades.

There is no quick fix. In addition a fixation with the fuel cell will be dangerous if this excludes other solutions. In short, the hydrogen fuelled internal combustion engine may be an even better option.

It is important that the step-by-step move to hydrogen does not proceed too quickly and without careful planning and evaluation of what should be the optimal route. The correct way of doing it will buy time and result in the true hydrogen society whereby the use of oil and gas could be virtually nil by 2100.

Although transport creates 25% of all CO2 emissions, 50% comes from industry and services and 25% from households. The fuel used in transport is of the highest quality and most refined, the oil and gas used in the other sectors less so. Price signals should be established to help phase out oil usage where it is easiest to do in technical, efficiency and cost terms. The most difficult oil use to replace is in transport.

The replacement of oil first in areas other than transport is justified in cost effective terms including minimising CO2 emissions. Doing this between 2000 and 2050 will give another 50 years to phase out oil from transport beginning around 2030.

Developing the fuel cell

If the aim is the hydrogen society, the attempt to hurry the use of fuel cells that use reformers to run on methanol and petrol would be wasteful blind alleys. Instead, the time bought by phasing out oil use elsewhere should be used to develop the fuel cell using liquid hydrogen produced by solar power in the warm [former] oil producing countries.

Furthermore, liquid hydrogen could be stored under low pressure in ordinary fuel tanks, unlike high pressure gaseous hydrogen. Storage and delivery would be safer than petrol. This brings the hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine into the equation.

The establishment of the infrastructure to produce, deliver and store liquid hydrogen, as well as ensuring that global arrangements to tackle the global issue of establishing the hydrogen society were in place and completely neutral (ie, no country was at a price disadvantage through taxation policies to boost the use of hydrogen) will take decades.

Within all this the use of hydrogen in the internal combustion engine builds upon the strength of the motor industry and avoids the problems of the fuel cell in terms of durability, reliability, cost and customer acceptance. No matter what, the manufacture and use of hydrogen in transport will be more expensive than oil, but the development of the hydrogen powered IC engine will minimise the penalty.

Whatever the deliberations of the Automotive Innovation and Growth Team the aim must be the hydrogen society. This will take time. It is recognised elsewhere and where key decisions in automotive policy and research occurs. A UK commitment to hydrogen won’t give us a competitive advantage but will avoid the disadvantage of being unprepared and off the pace.