Hydrogen fuel bubbles up agenda as investments rocket
More than 50 years ago hydrogen fuel cells helped put Neil Armstrong on the Moon, but mainstream usage of the technology has remained elusive since.
Now there are signs that may be changing, with a spate of new investments even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian reported.
Fuel cells function by running hydrogen over a catalyst, often platinum, stripping away electrons that run through an electrical circuit. The positively charged hydrogen ions combine with oxygen in the air to form water as its only emission, while the electricity generated can run the same motors as used in any electric vehicle, giving a fuel source with zero harmful exhaust emissions.
Crucially, the hydrogen must be produced from clean sources to be carbon neutral, or “green”. So-called blue hydrogen, created using methane gas rather than electrolysis of water, has attracted significant interest from fossil fuel producers, but it does not come with the same environmental benefits.
Carmakers have recognized the potential of the technology for decades. Detroit’s General Motors first tested its hydrogenpowered Electrovan in 1966.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, regularly describes “fool cells” as “staggeringly dumb” for passenger cars, given the inefficiencies of using electricity to produce hydrogen rather than directly to power vehicles.
Yet many large automotive manufacturers are sticking with it. Toyota, the world’s second-largest carmaker, planned — before the pandemic — to produce 30,000 of its Mirai hydrogen cars in 2020, but larger vehicles are the main aim, said Johan van Zyl, chief executive of Toyota Motor Europe, earlier this year.
“We need scale for hydrogen to be successful,” he said. “To find scale I think heavy commercial vehicles and buses will be the first phase of hydrogen application in Europe.”
Hydrogen has already been used successfully in large vehicles. Transport for London’s RV1 bus route shadowing the Thames used hydrogen buses for eight years, which clocked up more than one million miles. Buses run on regular routes and return to depots, removing the biggest obstacle to mass adoption of hydrogen: The lack of a network of filling stations across the UK.
For rail and vehicle usage — and potentially aircraft — fuel cells have the major benefit of allowing refueling within minutes, compared with the hours of charging required by some battery-powered cars.
The flurry of activity has piqued investor interest. Sheffield-based ITM Power in the UK has what it claims is the world’s largest factory making electrolysers, the machines that break down water into its hydrogen and oxygen constituents. Shares in the Aim-listed company, backed by chemicals giant Linde, have more than tripled in price since the start of the year.
Graham Cooley, ITM’S chief executive, says the revolutionary reduction in renewable energy costs has made hydrogen into a genuine solution across the economy. Solar- and wind-powered electrolysis offers the prospect of carbon-neutral hydrogen production, which could also provide an effective way of storing unpredictable renewable energy.
“The market for green hydrogen is expanding exponentially,” said Cooley.
“The whole world is moving to net zero.”