Seminar reveals that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are ready to solve many of the challenges faced by conventional electric vehicles

  • It can be made with green energy and emits only water, but will hydrogen ever be the fuel of the future? The APC’s seminar ‘Hydrogen – is it time to put our foot on the gas?’ asked the experts
  • Consensus of experts revealed that hydrogen could be one of the most effective long-term solutions to reducing transport emissions
  • Next APC Future of Technology seminar – ‘Tailpipe dreams; what is a sustainable vehicle?’ – will be held later this week at the Royal Geographical Society, London on March 29th

At the latest Future of Technology seminar organised by the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) and Innovate UK, academics and industry specialists agreed that hydrogen is ready to challenge batteries as the zero emissions fuel of the future. With hydrogen fuel cell vehicles now in production and proven, compelling arguments were delivered to support the fuel as one the most effective long-term solutions to reducing transport emissions.

The APC’s Chief Executive, Ian Constance, asked the question:

It’s a fuel that can be manufactured with ‘green’ energy, which can refuel a vehicle in 3-5 minutes and which generates power through light-weight, compact systems that are recyclable and emit only water. It sounds too good to be true, so what’s the reality?

The question was debated at a seminar held in the National Museum Cardiff’s historic Reardon Smith lecture theatre, the second event in the APC’s Future of Technology series. The next event, to be held later this week at the Royal Geographical Society on March 29th, will pose the question ‘What is a sustainable vehicle?’ in relation to the critical whole vehicle lifecycle.

Proven Technology

The controversial Cardiff debate, chaired by E4tech director Adam Chase, began with John Maddy of the University of South Wales delivering some powerful messages. “Replacing internal combustion engines with hydrogen fuel cells delivers the highest CO2 reduction achievable with any known technology,” he claimed. “Unlike batteries, they are already proven in rail and truck applications as well as passenger cars. You could run all the trains in Wales using hydrogen produced from just one medium sized (140 MW) wind farm.”

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are already available from three major manufacturers – Honda, Hyundai and Toyota. Maddy gave the Hyundai NEXO as an example: “It can run for 500 miles on one fill of hydrogen that weighs just 6.3 kg.” Buses and trains are also running emissions-free on hydrogen and the UK government has committed to a trial of hydrogen buses by 2020.

Toyota GB’s alternative fuels manager, John Hunt, said that hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) are now thoroughly validated with the main barriers to sale being the cost of the complete fuel cell system, especially the fuel storage tanks, and the availability of the gas.

Speakers generally agreed that as demand grows, the majority of hydrogen supply would come from electrolysis using clean energy. This could be produced close to the point of use, supplied via tankers or by pipeline. “There is 1 TWh of unused power generating capacity available in the UK. This could produce enough hydrogen to fuel 90,000 FCEVs for 12,000 miles per year each, with none of the load balancing problems that are being predicted for battery electric vehicles,” said Hunt, who suggested his company will be selling 30,000 FCEVs a year by 2020.

Hugo Spowers, founder of sustainable car company Riversimple, believes the principal barriers are not technical but to do with people, politics and business inertia. His vehicles use a pragmatic mix of energy storage, based on the understanding that 80 percent of an engine’s capability is redundant for 90 percent of the vehicle’s driving: “Sizing a fuel cell for the 90 percent and using a supercapacitor for heavy transients and regenerative breaking allows a light-weight, highly efficient powertrain with an affordable whole-life cost.”

Professor Dan Brett of UCL accepted that there is still some way to go on fuel cell cost. His research, now being industrialised by Bramble Energy, shows how fuel cell stacks can be manufactured using high-volume techniques already proven in the electronics industry. By constructing the stack as if it was a Printed Circuit Board, Brett and his Imperial College partners believe they can reduce the cost by 42 percent. Intelligent Energy’s vice president business development, Dennis Hayter, emphasised the importance of reducing system cost too, looking not just at the stack but also at the thermal systems and management systems.

Returning to John Hunt’s observation about the cost of high-pressure hydrogen storage tanks, Richard Pargeter of TWI looked at the potential use of lower cost steels. Pargeter explained that currently, expensive steel alloys are used to prevent hydrogen embrittlement where the oxide layer is damaged, but his team believes it will be possible to avoid this if coatings and different joining techniques are used. These new steel tanks will also be substantially cheaper than today’s carbon fibre tanks, although there will be a weight penalty.

How about the fuel?

Guto Owen, director of Ynni Glan, pointed out that fuel cell power generation is well established in other sectors too, most notably for providing electricity for buildings. “In Korea, one installation already powers 71,000 homes,” he told the conference. “Fuel cell power generation is easily scalable, so it is ideal for a growing town, city or industrial area.” Worldwide, hydrogen gas with a value of around $130 billion is manufactured and consumed by a range of industries every year, with this expected to rise to around $200 billionn a year in 2020.

Cross-sector application is an important part of the solution, highlighted Dr. John Newton of ITM Power, which is developing technology that will allow hydrogen to be injected into the existing gas distribution network. Newton also provided examples of the simplicity of building local electrolysis and refuelling stations that are ideal for cars, buses and trains. That message was confirmed by Clare Jackson of the Hydrogen Hub and by Geraint Bruton of BOC, who gave some examples of ideal Return to Base operations including stacker trucks that must be zero emissions for indoor operation yet must also be refuelled quickly.

What about vehicles that need to be refuelled at different locations? Guto Owen showed maps of northern Europe and California to demonstrate the impressive distribution of hydrogen filling stations in those regions. “While the infrastructure costs for battery electric vehicles is lower at modest volumes, once there are one million hydrogen vehicles on the road, the cost of H2 infrastructure becomes substantially less than a battery charging network at around €1.9 billion compared with around €2.8 billion.”

Is Hydrogen a waste of electricity?

Are FCEVs worthwhile? Not according to Dr. Colin Herron, chief executive of Zero Carbon Future, who asked “Why waste electricity and money making hydrogen when you could just put it into a battery and go?” Presenting a range of calculations, Herron claimed that a fuel cell electric passenger car is “three times the price to buy and five times the cost per mile to run.” He also suggested that by the time EV batteries have finished their second life – potentially in around 15 years – technologies will have been developed that allow them to be recycled and the rare metals recovered, eliminating one of the major environmental concerns around BEV technology.

Time to put our foot on the gas?

In the final presentation, Harsh Pershad of Innovate UK said every aspect of a hydrogen infrastructure is now proven, with a number of fuel cell applications in transportation and industry. “This is now a proven fuel and a proven energy system,” he stated in an up-beat summary. “The challenges are around cost and infrastructure, but as we have seen, there are solutions and these will become commercially viable as volumes grow.”

Returning to the APC’s big question – ‘Hydrogen – is it time to put our foot on the gas?’ – the conference chair summarised the views of the speakers, concluding that hydrogen is now ready for accelerated adoption. “As a complement to Battery Electric Vehicles, hydrogen offers solutions where batteries are as yet to show a commercially attractive capability,” they concluded. “With the expertise and energy of specialists such as those we have heard today, I am sure we will see Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles taking an increasingly prominent roll across all sectors of zero emissions transport.”