Is hydrogen our ticket to a greener future?
Is this limitless element our get out of jail card?
My bias towards stories with a greener, brighter future is fuelled by news like the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. It’s crystal clear that repeated failures by governments to act on the warnings provided by scientists over decades has led to the current crisis. We are now at a tipping point, many argue we’ve already past it.
I recently watched a JCB video, you know, the UK manufacturer, head quartered near Alton Towers, who make big yellow diggers. They were explaining the benefits of big plant being powered by liquid hydrogen and not relying on battery power like my car.
Lord Tony Bamford, the owner of his family’s firm, believes the government and others have been dazzled by Elon Musk’s success with Tesla’s battery tech, just when Volkswagen were caught cheating in the diesel gate scandal. Such is the fervour for electric solutions, alternatives like hydrogen are not getting the same attention or funding.
Hydrogen is a highly flammable gas as the Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937 starkly demonstrated. More positively, it’s the preferred fuel for rockets too. Hydrogen can be produced from any primary energy source including renewables which means supply is effectively limitless. The only byproduct from combusting hydrogen is water which must make it a key part of the jigsaw in our race to find a greener energy future.
Hydrogen fuel cell
The last time I read about hydrogen was the announcement that Honda had launched the Clarity saloon car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell 6 years ago. The story came from Los Angeles and the takeout was the only emission from the exhaust pipe was water. You could drink it, a neat stunt for journalists to write about. The Clarity was a lease-only vehicle, had a high price of £50,500 and suffered from a dearth of hydrogen filling stations. It was never sold in the UK and production stops this year at Honda’s US manufacturing plant. The only fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) available in the UK today, are the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo.
How does it work?
Much like a battery, the cell converts hydrogen into electrical energy using the movement of charged hydrogen ions to generate current. The hydrogen recombines with oxygen producing water - the only emission, and a bit of heat. Today’s hydrogen fuel cell, although less efficient than an electric battery compares well with petrol and diesel, being roughly 25% efficient. The emissions from the fuel cell even when generated from natural gas (well to wheel) is 30% less than a conventional diesel engine.
Hydrogen isn’t new?
You might be questioning what’s new about liquid hydrogen as it’s been commercially available for years? Nothing, except 98% of the annual global production comes from fossil-based hydrogen in the form of natural gas which also generates CO2. Only 2% of the 600 billion cubic metres of hydrogen manufactured each year is made by water electrolysis.
Very little hydrogen is used for combustion purposes either. 90% becomes the primary ingredient for fertilisers and use in the petrochemicals industry. For hydrogen to succeed, we need to see the development of the hydrogen economy which relies on government support in the first instance helping to establish clean production and distribution.
The UK government’s long-awaited Energy White Paper arrived in December 2020 with plenty of references to hydrogen. It confirmed that the UK’s hydrogen strategy is coming and recently Kwasi Kwarteng the Energy Secretary confirmed its long awaited arrival in the next few weeks. There is growing pressure to have this published and investment decisions discussed in advance of COP26 in Glasgow.
Siemens Energy UK have publicly stated that hydrogen companies and investors are waiting for more details of the strategy before deploying the capital and technology which they have made available.
Good and not so good stories
Other companies are already active. BOC ran an 8 week hydrogen bus trial in Dublin using electrolysis to generate the gas at its nearby plant. They have also announced Green Hydrogen for Glasgow with a new production facility using wind and solar power produced by Scottish Power. The green hydrogen will be used to power fleets of heavy duty vehicles and help to create a carbon free transport network.
bp recently announced, H2 Teeside, a proposed blue hydrogen production facility. While they expect to manufacture 1 GW (gigawatt) of hydrogen, they will also have to store 2 million tonnes of CO2 every year. The intention is to use the existing gas pipeline infrastructure and continue to drill out North Sea gas which partly explains why in March 2021, the UK government said it will continue to issue new oil and gas licences. This was greeted with widespread criticism.
Big plant needs big power
JCB makes 400 diesel engines every day, about 1 million in total for its big boys’ toys. They have very cleverly created a technology demonstrator using their standard 4 litre diesel engine to run on hydrogen. This is not a fuel cell but an internal combustion engine, switching diesel for hydrogen with the same zero emissions benefit as the hydrogen fuel cell. It makes a lot of sense.
A typical family car is used for about 300 hours a year. JCB equipment can easily be used for 8 hours a day and regularly longer when double shifts are employed. Batteries don’t make sense. On their biggest machines they would have to add 8 tons of battery weight to run a shift and then there’s the time to recharge afterwards, plus the additional cost of an expensive battery. The hydrogen fuel tank is no bigger than the diesel equivalent but it contains three times the potential energy (stored as a liquid under pressure). Refuelling is quick and the current dealer infrastructure can continue to service the needs of JCB’s customers retaining all of their legacy systems. More significantly, the cost of the hydrogen engine will be similar to the current diesel one. Batteries and fuel cells continue to attract a significant premium.
When oil companies really stop
One indication that the climate crisis is being taken seriously is when oil companies like bp part company with fossil fuels. Blue hydrogen feels like a fudge to me. A step to appease shareholders and company profits first, applied with a tint of green.
They do have greener plans. At their Lingen refinery in Germany they are planning to produce green hydrogen from 2024 using electrolysis and renewable energy from North Sea wind. In Western Australia, a feasibility study confirms that solar and wind could be used to generate hydrogen by electrolysis and then distribute it as green ammonia (nitrogen and hydrogen) which has advantages over pure hydrogen.
When though? We don’t have all the time in the world anymore.