Hydrogen: "fuel cells will replace diesel engines within 10 years"
by Mike Scott, April 18, 2019
As the focus moves from decarbonising the electricity sector to embrace transportation and heating, slowly but surely, hydrogen is starting to play a more important role. The gas has a number of advantages over electricity, including its flexibility and the fact that it can provide energy storage for long periods of time, unlike electricity. It can use the existing gas network if it is used for heating, and it is more appropriate than electricity in heavy transportation such as trucking and rail. Mike Scott brings you the latest round-up of hydrogen updates…
The signs are finally there that the hydrogen sector is starting to awaken from its slumber. H2 alternatives are starting to emerge, in both industry and for transportation – and what is encouraging is the variety of applications for which it is being used.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change says that “hydrogen is a credible option to help decarbonise the UK energy system if combined with greater energy efficiency, cheap low carbon power generation, electrified transport and new hybrid heat pump systems”. However, it adds that “its role depends on early government commitment and improved support to develop the UK’s industrial capability”.
Currently, hydrogen is mostly produced using a process called steam methane reforming, with natural gas as the feedstock – a process that is highly carbon-intensive. For hydrogen to be a viable source of low-carbon energy, either the gas facility would need carbon capture and storage equipment – something that is not currently commercially available – or it would need an alternative source of energy.
London-based PowerHouse Energy and its development partner, waste-to-energy company Waste2tricity, have announced plans to build the world’s first industrial-scale plastics-to-hydrogen facility, in the north west of England. PowerHouse says that the £7m site will be able to convert 25 tonnes of waste plastic and other materials such as end-of-life tyres into 1 tonne of hydrogen and 28MWh of electricity every day, enough power for around 3,000 homes and enough hydrogen to fuel around 6,000 HGV miles. The plant, if approved, could be in operation by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, scientists at California’s Stanford University have discovered a way to produce hydrogen using solar power and seawater. Existing ways of producing hydrogen from water require highly purified water, which is a precious resource and costly to produce.
Theoretically, to power cities and cars, “you need so much hydrogen it is not conceivable to use purified water,” said Hongjie Dai, a chemistry professor at Stanford and one of the key researchers on the project.
And in Australia, researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) have found a way to extract pure hydrogen gas from ammonia using a metal membrane, which would enable the gas to be shipped safely around the world, like oil and gas are now.
At Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, researchers have been working on another tiny, but essential, piece of the hydrogen economy jigsaw – what they call “the world’s fastest hydrogen sensor”, which will enable the rapid detection of hydrogen leaks and therefore ensure that cars fuelled by hydrogen – which is extremely flammable – are safe.
Hydrogen truck maker Nikola recently announced plans to build a production facility and research centre in Arizona, and CEO Trevor Milton says: “We believe the fuel cell will replace the diesel engine [in trucking] in the next 10 years.” To back up this belief, the company is planning to build tens of thousands of trucks and a coast-to-coast network of hydrogen fuelling stations across the US.
But it is not just start-ups and university labs that are working on the building blocks of the hydrogen economy – oil major BP and Nouryon, the former specialty chemicals arm of chemicals giant AkzoNobel to build the biggest hydrogen production facility using renewable energy in Europe.
The plant, to be based at a refinery at the Port of Rotterdam, would comprise a 250MW water electrolysis unit capable of producing up to 45,000 tonnes of green hydrogen a year. The refinery currently uses hydrogen made from hydrocarbons to desulphurise products, but BP believes it could cut 350,000 tons of CO2 emissions every year with the new facility, which would use excess wind and solar power that would otherwise be “spilled” at times of high supply.
Nouryon is also involved with a hydrogen hub in Amsterdam, where it is partnering with the Port Authority and Tata Steel to build a 100MW renewable energy-produced water electrolysis plant that will be able to produce 15,000 tonnes of hydrogen and oxygen that Tata Steel can use at its IJmuiden steel works. Back in October last year, the companies were touting this facility as Europe’s largest, in an illustration of how fast the sector is developing.
Other indications that hydrogen is becoming more accepted include the roll-out of trains than run on hydrogen in Germany, with tests also planned for the UK, where they will be a good, cheap, low-carbon option in areas that are not already electrified – and the news that China plans to phase out subsidies for electric vehicles and switch its focus to encouraging the development of hydrogen vehicles.
Taken on their own, each of these recent announcements is relatively insignificant – but their diversity, both geographically and in terms of the industries and applications involved, suggests that hydrogen is starting to gain traction as a serious player in the energy industry.