Trials of hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines are underway in the world today. Westport Fuel Systems and Cummins are both testing the technology to accelerate the decarbonisation of commercial vehicles.
Jeremy Clarkson, former Top Gear presenter and current star of The Grand Tour, wrote in his latest The Sunday Times column that he is now finds himself “consumed with the idea of using the familiar technology but tweaking it to run on hydrogen instead of petrol, so that the only waste product is water”. “The internal combustion engine (ICE) has been around for more than a hundred years. We are all familiar with it and we are now very good at making it reliable and cheap,” Clarkson wrote in The Times.
Whether a hydrogen-fuelled ICE or hydrogen-powered fuel cell, can hydrogen halt the charge to battery-electric vehicles?
With a battery-electric vehicle, your whole experience is different to what you are used to today driving a conventional petrol or diesel car. My brother recently bought a Tesla Model 3. It takes him eight to 12 hours to charge it to full capacity at home or if he visits a Tesla Supercharger, he can add around 200 miles of range in about 15-20 minutes – a Tesla Supercharger basically offers a faster charge. He can get about 350 miles to a full charge, he has range anxiety.
Last week, I went in a hydrogen-powered fuel cell car for the first time during a visit to ITM Power, a Toyota Mirai. The Mirai refuels in three to five minutes and has a range of around 400 miles – just like the petrol car I drive today – except the only emission is water. Just to be clear a hydrogen fuel cell car is still an electric car. If you’re not familiar with how a hydrogen fuel cell car works, in the Mirai, electricity is produced from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. You fill up with hydrogen fuel, in the same way as you buy petrol or diesel at a filling station. The fuel is contained in high-pressure tanks and fed into a fuel cell stack, where the hydrogen and the oxygen found naturally in the air react with each other and generate electricity. The Mirai has a ‘H2O’ button on the dashboard which when you press it, the water comes out of the exhaust.
And the whole experience of refuelling a hydrogen car at a hydrogen station is exactly the same as refuelling at a petrol or diesel station today; it’s still with a classic fuel pump and takes three to five minutes. I got the chance to visit two hydrogen stations in the UK last week – ITM Power’s brand new station at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham and the company’s wind hydrogen station in Rotherham.
The number of hydrogen refuelling stations worldwide has more than doubled in the past five years, marking the path towards more widespread commercial deployment. In 2020, 107 hydrogen stations went into operation worldwide, according to H2stations.org, an information service of Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik (LBST) – more than ever before. 29 new stations opened in Europe, 72 in Asia and six in North America. H2stations.org says at the end of 2020, there were 553 hydrogen stations in operation worldwide, with concrete plans in place for an additional 225 station locations.
Hydrogen has moved beyond being a research curiosity, it’s not just a scientific concept anymore. Hydrogen cars, buses, trucks and trains are out there in the world today, along with the accompanying infrastructure. With the likes of Jeremy Clarkson writing about it in the press, public interest is increasing, and the general public will play an important role in which technology leads the green movement, as the drivers of the economy. Whilst there is a place for both battery-electric and hydrogen technology for passenger cars, hydrogen is the only forward for decarbonisation of other modes of transport; there simply isn’t, and won’t, be enough batteries to electrify everything, and that’s without bringing the grid into it.
The Conversation reports battery production capacity currently under construction will allow the production of the equivalent of 40 million electric vehicles annually by 2028. In 2019, the world produced nearly 100 million cars, vans, buses and trucks and there’s around 1.4 billion motor vehicles in the world today.
Even at the projected 2028 level of battery production capacity, The Conversation estimates it would take 35 years to replace this global vehicle fleet with electric models, which is not fast enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Is the future hydrogen or is it battery-electric? Get in touch and let us know your thoughts.