Hydrogen Honda

Is hydrogen the solution for the future transportation fuel?

The current focus for the car of the future is plug-in electric vehicles, but there is still a lot of support for hydrogen fuel cells to be part of the solution as E&T reveals.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on our planet and has been heralded as the clean fuel of the future. Can you feel a 'but' coming on? Here it is: but in order to obtain hydrogen in a form that can be used as a fuel, we need to use up energy. Lots of it. We need to use electricity to make hydrogen; we then need to store and transport that hydrogen; and then, using a fuel cell, turn it back into electricity to run a car.

So why not simply plug your car into the mains and charge up the batteries with electricity without using the intermediate step of turning it into hydrogen? The answer lies in theoretical calculations that show the conversion of electricity to hydrogen and then back again can waste less energy than charging a battery and using it. It also takes only a few minutes to fill up on hydrogen, whereas an electric car often needs to be charged overnight.

It is these two facts - plus the fact that hydrogen is a clean fuel and can be produced from many different sources other than fossil fuels - that are driving the idea of the hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen has a high energy-density by weight and a fuel cell is two or three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine. So the potential is enormous. But at the moment, the hydrogen fuel cell is only technically, not economically, more efficient than the internal combustion engine.

'Using hydrogen as a fuel does not currently make financial sense,' says Dave Hurst, industry analyst with Pike Research of Boulder, Colorado, US. 'But as production increases, the financial equation is expected to improve.'

According to a recent report from Pike Research, fuel cell vehicles (FCV) will be commercially launched in most regions of the world by 2014, and cumulative sales of fuel cell cars and trucks will surpass 2.8 million vehicles globally by 2020. Pike Research forecasts that western Europe will be the leading region for FCV sales with a 37 per cent share of the world market, followed closely by Asia Pacific with 36 per cent.' FCV sales in North America will represent approximately 25 per cent of global sales during the period from 2014 to 2020.' The company anticipates that FCV revenues will reach $23.9bn annually by 2020 representing 670,000 FCVs.

But, as Hurst points out, this is still only a very small proportion of the global automotive market. 'This will probably be only about 2 per cent of total vehicle sales and it is very hard to predict if or when they will no longer be niche vehicles,' says Hurst. 'It is safe to say it won't be in this decade, though.'

The lead that western Europe will have in this field will mainly be driven by Germany, followed by Norway and the UK. One reason the UK is lagging behind some of its neighbours is that few major car manufacturers have their main research centres in the UK. The major players in this field are Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota. All these companies have hydrogen car research projects but no hydrogen car is yet widely available to the public.

There are still several challenges to be overcome before that can happen. Whether or not the hydrogen economy will actually happen is a classic 'chicken and egg' problem - no one wants to invest in the infrastructure such as filling stations until there are more cars on the road; but no one wants to buy a fuel-cell car until they know there are sufficient filling stations.

This cycle can only be broken gradually, with gestures like the UK government's recent announcement that the M4 motorway is to become the country's first 'hydrogen highway'. Researchers at the University of Glamorgan in Wales have received a total of £6.6m funding to investigate hydrogen production from renewable energy, develop hydrogen fuel cell and combustion engine technology, and to plan the location of more refuelling stations along the M4.

'The cost of fossil fuels is increasing while the cost of manufacturing hydrogen is decreasing,' says Jon Maddy from the Hydrogen Research Unit at the University of Glamorgan. 'In 2015 we will see the economics of these two industries start to converge and this is also the year that many major players will be making key decisions about their involvement in the market.'

He admits there are many barriers to overcome before the hydrogen economy becomes a reality, but, as he points out, 'if you sit and contemplate all the barriers you'll never get anywhere'. He cites the example of Nissan, which five years ago had a hydrogen car with a range of 200km. By making advances in fuel cell, battery and motor technology, this car now has a range of 500km and uses the same amount of hydrogen as before. It also uses less platinum in the fuel cell - a subject that has often been used to dismiss hydrogen as a fuel of the future by opponents to the technology. 'With advances such as these, we are slowly but surely moving towards a hydrogen economy,' says Maddy.

Green hydrogen

The University of Glamorgan will use its new funding to employ around 20 researchers working on several areas including the production of 'green' hydrogen and the design of hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure. 'Production of green hydrogen can be a very economical process,' says Maddy. 'We'are developing a pilot plant that uses biomass and bacteria to produce hydrogen. This looks even more promising than electrolysis of water because people will often pay you to take away their waste.'

His group is also investigating the use of hydrogen to store electricity generated by intermittent renewables such as solar cells and wind turbines. The benefit of this over using batteries is that it can be done on a massive scale. 'The great thing about hydrogen is that it can be produced in so many ways,' says Maddy.

Professor Kevin Kendall agrees. He heads up a research team at the University of Birmingham, which has a fleet of hydrogen cars on its campus. 'There are thousands of different ways of producing green hydrogen but it is quite difficult to get hold of because the big chemical companies claim there is not enough demand for it,' he says. 'This is why we plan to produce it on site in the future.'

Like Maddy, Kendall believes 2015 will be a critical year in the development of a hydrogen economy. 'Up until now the UK has been more sceptical than some countries and needs to step up its efforts if it is going to keep up with countries such as Germany,' says Kendall. 'The UK government has made electric vehicles a priority, but I am not sure it actually understands that hydrogen fuel-cell cars are also electric vehicles.'

It is true that the government has favoured electric vehicles, but there are indications that it sees hydrogen as the long-term solution. In May 2009 the industry-led New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (NAIGT) published a roadmap that gives a clear pathway from today's combustion engine, through optimisation and increased efficiency, to increased hybridisation, electric vehicles and, ultimately, fuel cell vehicles.

More recently, in February this year, the Technology Strategy Board announced that it is to invest £7m on behalf of the government in 15 demonstrator projects. These included the Fuel Cell London Taxi Demonstrator Programme, which will have aims to have a fleet of fuel-cell-powered black cabs on London's streets by the 2012 Olympics.

'The NAIGT roadmap shows that industry believes that hydrogen fuel cell cars are part of the long-term solution,' says Peter Speers, technical specialist at Cenex, the UK's centre of excellent for low-carbon and fuel cell technologies. 'But in order for this to become reality, everyone has a part to play - the large oil companies, the car manufacturers, the government, the researchers and the public.'

There is currently little evidence of this multi-way dialogue and without it we will never have the hydrogen economy.

Another enabler for the hydrogen economy is renewable energy. Without enough renewable energy we can not produce enough green hydrogen. 'The UK's target is to have 30 per cent of its electricity produced from renewables by 2020,' says Speers. 'We won't have a real hydrogen economy until we have a renewable energy economy.'

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