Hy­dro­gen fuel bub­bles up agenda as in­vest­ments rocket

Iran Daily - - Science & Technology -

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.”

LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

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