Is the hydrogen tech ‘revolution’ hope or hype?
In his speech on the expected economic recovery, the prime minister said that hydrogen technology is an area where the United Kingdom is the world leader. He hopes he will create clean jobs in the future. But is the hydrogen revolution hope or hype?
The long-toothed bucket digger bites into a pile of stones, tilts and flexes his sturdy mechanical arm.
He rotates, extends his arm and unloads his load on the rough terrain of a Staffordshire quarry.
It is a beast of a car and looks like a normal excavator from the front.
But from behind you can see that its tank full of dirty diesel has been replaced with a hydrogen fuel cell.
The excavator is the latest in a generation of vehicles powered by the lightest element on Earth.
The compendium of hydrogen-powered vehicles now spans from excavators to micro-taxis, trucks, boats, vans, single-story and now double-decker buses – and even small planes.
It works by reacting hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to generate electricity. The only direct emission is water.
Speaking of a revolution
So finally the long-awaited hydrogen revolution is here. Or is it?
In the early 2000s, hydrogen advocates thought it would dominate the clean automotive market.
But the “hydrogen highway” promise never materialized, for a couple of crucial reasons.
First, hydrogen energy needed a new infrastructure, while rival battery cars could be charged by the almost ubiquitous power grid.
Secondly, high-powered batteries at that time were already well advanced for other uses such as computers, but hydrogen was not.
So hydrogen lost the frontal battle for the automobile. But now it’s back in play for the kind of transportation, industry and heating businesses that batteries are struggling to fulfill.
Take our large mechanical excavator, a JCB prototype. He has a battery-operated cousin, small enough to squeeze through a door and work in a building.
But JCB says the big digger would need a five-ton battery and take hours to refuel. Hydrogen, on the other hand, is lighter than air and takes a few minutes to fill a tank.
Trucks fall into the same category as excavators: sometimes the battery would be as heavy as the payload.
The same goes for buses and the Bamford family, owners of JCB, claim to have orders for 80 double-decker buses from its Wrightbus factory in Ballymena in Northern Ireland.
This still leaves the problem of charging infrastructure, but this can be solved by providing hydrogen pumps on the highways for long distance truckers.
The same network could power future hybrid and hydrogen car batteries and address the need for heavier batteries in plug-in cars.
Buses could use hydrogen stored in storage in Kevlar-lined tanks for safety.
Past fears of the explosion of hydrogen tanks have been addressed by the advent of Kevlar coated tanks and hydrogen release mechanisms in case the tank is hit.
Airports could also store hydrogen and the first test flight of an electric aircraft in the UK at Cranfield University was recently powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
There is – forgive the play on words – a head of steam that forms on hydrogen. Germany runs ahead with a network of filling stations and a hydrogen train. It is investing 7 billion euros in an attempt to dominate the hydrogen market.
The European Commission also wants a part of the action.
The Euractiv website has reported that it plans to publish a hydrogen strategy soon. A leaked project floated the idea of making the euro the currency for international hydrogen negotiations, as the US dollar is for oil.
The UK government also plans to announce a hydrogen strategy before Parliament closes for the summer as part of its economic recovery package.
He has been spurred on by the reproaches that the United Kingdom has lost the battle for battery technology in China, so it must not let the hydrogen wagon escape. The Climate Change Commission advises the government to launch large-scale trials in the early 2020s.
In fact, in a few weeks, Britain’s first hydrogen train – developed by the University of Birmingham – will be tested on regular tracks.
So it seems that hydrogen has finally made it. But not so fast … because it is absolutely not without problems.
Currently almost all hydrogen sold in the UK is produced by dividing it from natural gas. But it is expensive and emits a lot of carbon dioxide for global warming.
The problem can be addressed by capturing CO2 at a hydrogen production hub, then burying it with carbon capture and storage. But this will further increase costs.
The alternative is inherently clean, but very expensive. It involves using excess renewable electricity, such as when the wind blows at night, to divide hydrogen from water using a fuel cell.
The process is expensive because it involves transforming electricity into gas, then back into electricity – a two-step reorder rejected by Tesla machine boss Elon Musk as “stupidly stupid”. “Foolish cells”, he calls them.
But hydrogen lovers believe that the future electricity grid will produce so much off-peak energy so cheap that we will have to find other uses for it. And they hope to see the cost of fuel cells plummet following the example of the offshore wind.
Of course, recent events have favored the advancement of hydrogen. When the UK had the goal of reducing 80% of carbon emissions by 2050, this gave way to polluting forms of fuel to absorb the remaining 20% of the carbon “budget”.
It is now widely recognized that homes with low-carbon heating systems such as heat exchangers will need a boost in a snap of cold from another source – and this increasingly looks like hydrogen.
Tests on hydrogen mixed with natural gas are already underway at Keele University.
And, depending on the amount of support it receives from the government, it appears that a technology that has lost its key battle against passenger cars two decades ago will still find a place in tomorrow’s zero-emission economy.
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