H2 Go! The hydrogen revolution

Long the poor relation when it came to the search for alternative fuels, the case for hydrogen is gaining momentum.

The adoption of hydrogen as a significant source of energy has been proposed for a long time. Indeed, the first hydrogen fuel cell was built in 1839. The potential of hydrogen has meant that from time to time over the years it has been proposed as an environmentally-friendly panacea. So much so, in fact, that a cynical joke arose about it that went: ‘Hydrogen is the fuel of the future – and always will be’.

This has been the case because the costs associated with establishing a hydrogen-based energy infrastructure have always been prohibitive, meaning that other, less cost-intensive options have generally prevailed.

However, a movement does seem currently to be underway to revive hydrogen’s use as a fuel. Indeed, there was a recent call for the UK to invest in producing more graduates specialising in renewable technologies such as hydrogen if it is to cement itself as a global leader in the sector. Professor Joe Howe, Executive Director of the Thornton Energy Research Institute at the University of Chester, says that in order for the UK to innovate new hydrogen technologies in years to come, it needs to produce more experts with the knowledge and skills to develop and research new breakthroughs.

His comments come as more than 40 world-leading academics from across the country in the fields of low-carbon energy, renewables, the environment, transport and climate change, back calls by cross-industry group Hydrogen Strategy Now for the Government to lay the foundations of a UK-wide hydrogen strategy before it is too late.

There are 41 businesses backing Hydrogen Strategy Now, which employs around 100,000 people and have a value of £100bn in the UK. They are ready to invest up to £1.5bn in hydrogen projects and create thousands of jobs across the country.

“A hydrogen strategy is essential to the UK stealing a march and becoming a world leader in hydrogen now,” said Professor Howe. “But in order for that to be sustained there needs to be far more investment in the education of students in renewable technologies.

“Technology will not stand still and will constantly need development and new ideas, and the only way we can keep the UK at the forefront of this is by encouraging more graduates to become experts in the field.”

In an open letter, academics from the likes of the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of Birmingham say a hydrogen strategy would “reinforce the UK’s standing, reputation and the export potential of our knowledge in this field”.

The letter states: “The UK has a huge number of natural advantages when it comes to hydrogen energy – we have a surplus supply of renewable wind energy, we have a robust energy infrastructure, and we have a highly-skilled manufacturing base well-suited to a cutting-edge new technology like hydrogen.

“The benefits of having a strong hydrogen economy are clear – it will drastically reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, and create new, green jobs across the country. It can help usher in a new era of zero-carbon transport, through hydrogen buses, trains, lorries and even ships and aeroplanes, as well as zero-carbon heating. It will also provide a huge boost to manufacturing in this country and give the UK the opportunity to lead the world in an exciting renewable and low-carbon technology.”

The group warns that if action is not taken to create a hydrogen strategy, then it risks being left behind by other countries which are starting to make moves into this area, such as Germany, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, and China, which have all introduced their own hydrogen strategies. The European Commission is also creating an EU hydrogen strategy, including plans for multi-billion-euro investment in hydrogen projects. Unless the government acts now, the UK risks being left behind.

A major step in the move to hydrogen is taking place with the announcement of the building of the world’s largest clean hydrogen plant in the UK. The Hydrogen to Humber Saltend (H2H Saltend) project, near Hull, will comprise a 600 MW auto thermal reformer (ATR) with carbon capture, the largest plant of its kind in the world, to convert natural gas to hydrogen.

Meanwhile it has been reported that the Government intends to announce a hydrogen strategy before Parliament closes for the summer, as part of its economic recovery package.

One of the most promising uses of hydrogen fuel cells is in the automotive industry. A number of major industry players, including BMW and Toyota, have already revealed plans to develop fleets of hydrogen-powered cars as the fuel source offers an additional, sustainable solution to electric power. But there are many applications beyond cars that are open to this clean energy source.

A fuel cell is a device that converts energy stored in molecules into electrical energy. Using hydrogen and oxygen as power, the fuel cell produces water, electricity and heat without creating any emissions other than water vapour. Only oxygen and hydrogen are required to power the fuel cell — the former is readily available in the atmosphere, and the latter can be generated through electrolysis.

While smart devices are growing ever more advanced, they’re still limited by power. Technology and car companies are all too aware of the restrictions of lithium-ion batteries and while chips and operating systems are becoming more efficient at saving power, the best hope is for just one or two days of battery life.

Hydrogen fuel cells can power any portable device that uses batteries. Unlike a typical battery, the hydrogen fuel cell continues to produce energy with the continuous supply of fuel. This capability enables them to power a range of devices, including smartphones, laptops and hearing aids.

In the defence sector, fuel cell technology has the potential to more than triple the flight time of drones or reduce the weight of the battery packs carried by soldiers in the field from around 15 kilograms to just one or two kilograms. In the middle of a disaster zone, these benefits could revolutionise the way emergency crews and military personnel respond to a situation.

Aside from portable power, fuel cells can be used in stationary applications. The cells are typically connected to the power grid or installed as grid-independent heat and electricity generators that provide clean power to homes, businesses, telecommunications networks and utilities. As stationary fuel cells are quiet and produce fewer pollutants than conventional, combustion based power generation technologies, they can be installed almost anywhere.

In Hwasung City, South Korea, the Gyeonggi Green Energy fuel cell park is currently the largest of its kind. With a 59 megawatt (MW) capacity, the facility delivers renewable energy to the South Korean power grid and high-quality heat to the district’s heating system. The United States is not far behind, with 56 large-scale fuel cell generating units with capacities greater than one MW.

Recognising the vulnerabilities of grid dependency, a number of organisations are looking at fuel cells to help supply a reliable source of backup power. After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the Caribbean and the US East Coast in 2012, fuel cells provided emergency backup power for telecommunications towers in both the Bahamas and the United States, allowing communication to remain open. Fuel cells can be monitored and controlled remotely, making them an ideal back-up source for a range of power applications.

In a further suggestion that hydrogen’s time may finally have arrived, in June, Hyundai Motor Company shipped the first 10 units of the Hyundai XCIENT Fuel Cell, the world’s first mass-produced fuel cell heavy-duty truck, to Switzerland.

The company plans to ship a total of 50 XCIENT Fuel Cells to Switzerland this year, with handover to commercial fleet customers starting in September. Hyundai plans to roll out a total of 1,600 XCIENT Fuel Cell trucks by 2025, reflecting the company’s environmental commitment and technological prowess as it works toward reducing carbon emissions through zero-emission solutions.

XCIENT is powered by a 190 kW hydrogen fuel cell system with dual 95-kW fuel cell stacks. Seven large hydrogen tanks offer a combined storage capacity of around 32.09 kg of hydrogen. The driving range for XCIENT Fuel Cell is about 400 km on a single refuelling. This was developed to find an optimal balance between the specific requirements from the potential commercial fleet customers and the charging infrastructure in Switzerland. Refuelling time for each truck takes approximately 8-20 minutes.

In December 2018, Hyundai Motor Group announced its long-term roadmap, “Fuel Cell Vision 2030”, and reaffirmed its commitment to accelerate the development of a hydrogen society by leveraging its global leadership in fuel cell technologies. As part of this plan, Hyundai Motor Group aims to secure a 700,000-unit-a-year capacity of fuel cell systems for automobiles as well as vessels, rail cars, drones and power generators by 2030.

In another recent development, members of the UK’s best-known construction family have joined forces to create the world’s first hydrogen digger.

JCB chairman Lord Bamford and his son Jo, who runs Ryse Hydrogen and Wrightbus, have spent two years working on the construction industry’s first ever hydrogen-powered excavator and a further year testing the prototype.

This ‘world-first’ will enable JCB to continue leading the sector on zero and low-carbon technologies and continue Ryse Hydrogen’s push to kickstart the UK’s hydrogen economy.

The 20-tonne 220X excavator powered by a hydrogen fuel cell has been undergoing rigorous testing at JCB’s quarry proving grounds. The exciting development means JCB is the first construction equipment company in the world to unveil a working prototype of an excavator powered by hydrogen.

Lord Bamford said: “The development of the first hydrogen-fuelled excavator is very exciting as we strive towards a zero carbon world. “In the coming months JCB will continue to develop and refine this technology with advanced testing of our prototype machine and we will continue to be at the forefront of technologies designed to build a zero carbon future.”

Jo Bamford said it was a game-changing addition to JCB’s fleet and a strong message for Britain’s green economy. “I truly believe hydrogen is the UK’s best opportunity to build a world-leading industry which creates UK jobs, cuts emissions and is the envy of the globe.”

Power for JCB’s prototype excavator is generated by reacting hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to create the energy needed to run electric motors. The only emission from the exhaust is water.

The development comes after JCB made manufacturing history last year by going into full production with the construction industry’s first fully electric mini excavator, the 19C-1E. JCB has also extended electric technology to its innovative Teletruk telescopic forklift range with the launch of an electric model, the JCB 30-19E.

Through constant innovation and design improvements, JCB has also been leading the way on clean diesel technology to meet Stage V EU emissions regulations and has almost eradicated the most harmful emissions from its latest range of diesel engines. Nitrous Oxide (NOx) is down 97%, soot particulates down by 98% and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions down by almost half.

In addition, ULEMCo, the world’s first hydrogen commercial vehicle conversion company, recently announced that it has worked with Yorkshire Water to produce what is believed to be the first water tanker anywhere to operate on hydrogen fuel. The new 7.5 tonne bowser has been converted from a standard truck to use hydrogen dual fuel, an approach that allows fleet managers to transition more quickly to low carbon operation.

Based on an average duty cycle, the new ULEMCo vehicle is expected to deliver a 33% reduction in carbon emissions. The benefit is further enhanced by the vehicle refuelling from an ITM hydrogen fuelling station in Sheffield that is powered directly from renewable wind.

Of course none of these examples individually or collectively proves that hydrogen is set to dominate the energy sector. However, what is clear is that, from having been perceived as a nice idea that wasn’t practical, the mainstream use of hydrogen is being taken very seriously by industry in the UK and across the world.