While there's debate over whether the technology stacks up against batteries for long-distance trucking, the case in maritime usage seems more clear-cut. Angeli Mehta reports

“Everyone loves hydrogen,” observed Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IAE), recently during a recent conference called to discuss an element that has long been used in industry but is now seen as essential in the race to net-zero.

From Namibia to Canada, Chile to the EU, policymakers are looking at hydrogen as never before. The world is on track when it comes to decarbonising the electricity sector, says Birol, “but the issue is clean energy transition, not clean electricity transition”.

The IEA believes hydrogen has an important role to play in decarbonising heavy transport, shipping and aviation, sectors that are difficult to electrify, but to get anywhere, demand will have to grow seven-fold from today, and that will require policy and infrastructure to kickstart the industry.

Julia King, a cross-bench peer and engineer who chairs the Carbon Trust, told the same conference that hydrogen would inevitably be more expensive than methane or electricity. “It's only when we have the driver of the commitments governments are making to net-zero, and the requirement to decarbonise processes that we can't electrify, that hydrogen becomes really essential in bulk for energy purposes.”

The EU’s hydrogen strategy expects that green hydrogen will be used to help decarbonise transport beyond 2024

An entire industry must be created because hydrogen doesn’t exist on its own in nature. It has to be made either from fossil fuels, which creates carbon dioxide (so-called grey hydrogen), or by using renewable energy to electrolyse water, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen (green hydrogen).

In Europe, sectors such as chemicals already use some 10m tonnes of hydrogen a year, with about 4% being produced by electrolysers.

The use of carbon capture and storage to remove emissions from grey hydrogen, so called blue hydrogen, is promoted as an interim solution until green hydrogen is cost-competitive, but the world's first at scale CCS project on hydrogen, Equinor's venture in the north-east of England, isn't scheduled to begin operating until 2026.

The Orkney Islands produces hydrogen from excess renewable energy. (Credit: Surf'n'Turf)

With the cost of renewable electricity tumbling, some in the renewables sector think green hydrogen could be cost-competitive as early as 2025, and, and certainly before 2030 – a far faster timeline than anticipated even a couple of years ago.

The EU anticipates up to €470bn in public and private sector investment will be needed by 2050 to increase production of green hydrogen. The EU’s hydrogen strategy, which anticipates that up to up to €470bn in public and private sector investment will be needed by 2050, expects that green hydrogen will be used to help decarbonise transport beyond 2024.

Partnerships are being formed across the world to make hydrogen in industrial clusters that will create supply and demand in close proximity; hubs in the UK and the port of Rotterdam are examples. (See box below) Chile, Morocco and South Africa have huge untapped renewable energy resources that could make them players in a hydrogen economy. Already Germany is backing a plant in Morocco to produce green hydrogen. The Orkney Islands, off Scotland’s northern coast, have been producing hydrogen from excess renewable energy and using it to power vans and a prototype ferry.

Policy has helped: Zero-emission vehicles don’t pay road tax

Hydrogen fuel cell buses are being deployed across China, and pilot schemes are under way in the UK.

In Switzerland, Hyundai and its partners have been working to develop the infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell trucks. It intends to put 1,000 on Swiss roads by 2023. Customers include supermarket and logistics firms like Migros and Camion Transport. The first 50 lorries have arrived, and Hyundai expects deliveries to ramp up quickly. It sees trucking as the best bet to build up hydrogen supply because of the large quantities required for long-distance transport.

Policy has helped the equation: the price of diesel is comparatively high and road tax rises with vehicle weight and distances driven. Zero-emission vehicles, however, don’t pay the tax.

Arizona has signed a deal to supply electricity to Nikola Motors to produce hydrogen. (Credit: Andrei Orlov/Shutterstock)

In the U.S., Nikola Motors is backing hydrogen for its long-haul trucking. While its first vehicles will be battery-electric, it is working on a model capable of travelling 900 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Brewing group Anheuser-Busch will lease hundreds of these trucks as part of a commitment to run its fleet on renewables by 2025.

Nikola Motors will also be making the hydrogen fuel. It has struck a “ground-breaking” deal with Arizona’s electricity supplier that chief executive Mark Russell says will enable it to make hydrogen at cost parity with (and perhaps even below) diesel.

Nikola will use excess renewables that would otherwise have been curtailed, for example at night, or when peak solar production doesn’t coincide with electricity demand, but will halt its manufacturing when electricity demand is at its peak. Overnight, nuclear power will also be used to produce hydrogen.

The challenge of balancing the grid is bigger every month, every year. And hydrogen can be part of the solution for that

Russell told an end-of-year results conference call, that “we represent the future of the electric grid. If you're going to get renewable energy, like wind and solar into the grid, and use it effectively, you either need massive storage of some kind ... or you can have us do it basically marginally for free – and we’ll pay you for the electricity that you're not going to be able to develop on the off-peak hours.”

Similar discussions are under way in Europe. “The challenge of balancing the grid is bigger and bigger every month, every year. And hydrogen can be part of the solution for that,” he adds.

However, the Arizona utility still has coal and gas in its generation mix so Nikola’s hydrogen won’t be entirely carbon-free.

Scania believes electric is the better route to decarbonising trucks. (Scania)

Swedish trucking group Scania, which is owned by Volkswagen, has concluded that the best use of hydrogen is not in trucking. Having developed both electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, Scania believes that battery-electric, not hydrogen, is the route to decarbonise the sector’s emissions.

Mats Reimark, Scania’s director of powertrain research, technology and concept development, says the driver for hydrogen has always been that the energy storage requirements in heavy-duty trucks are too large to be supplied by batteries.

“But what we have found in Scania is that pure battery electric is coming to the point where the volume, the mass, [and] the cost of the battery is making it a viable solution for heavy-duty transport. And of course, it's going to be the shorter distances, initially … but the rate of development of batteries is tremendous right now. And I think many of us, including me, have been surprised.”

So we think the use of hydrogen in real life is going to be more appreciated if it's converted into thermal energy

A mandatory 45-minute rest time after 4.5 hours of driving provides the time to recharge batteries. With predictable trips between depots, Reimark says battery-electric is ideal for Scania’s customers. The advances in battery technology mean that efficiency comparisons with hydrogen don’t stack up.

Taking into account losses in conversion all along the chain, from electrolyser to wheel, suggests three times more electricity is required to move one of its trucks using hydrogen compared to a battery.

“So we think the use of hydrogen in real life is going to be more appreciated if it's converted into thermal energy [to heat buildings, for example], rather than being a fuel cell and on the wheel on a truck.”

(Credit: Ivan Smuk/Shutterstock)

Reimark anticipates that one of the drivers of a hydrogen economy will be its use as a vehicle to transport energy from sunny and windy regions like Patagonia to more energy-scarce parts of the globe, or for seasonal energy storage.

For shipping, the equation could tip differently. Shipping accounts for 3% of global emissions, and carries almost 80% of global trade.The Getting to Zero Coalition of more than 140 companies across the maritime, energy, infrastructure and finance sectors wants to get zero-emission vessels into operation by 2030 and expects the sector to generate the demand needed to drive investment in clean energy projects.

Another consortium, HyShip, aims to build a series of prototype vessels running on liquid green hydrogen, beginning with a cargo ferry powered by a combination of battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells. The 14 partners want to have the vessel operating by 2024, taking both cargo and hydrogen fuel to ports and bunkers along the Norwegian coast.

Kawasaki of Japan expects its hydrogen carrier to bring the first cargo of liquid hydrogen (made by the gasification of coal and cooled to -253C) from Australia to Japan this spring. However, the Australian plant has yet to develop CCS, so the hydrogen is not low-carbon.

More than $1.4tn of capital investment will be needed if the shipping industry is to decarbonise by 2050

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) calculates that hydrogen could have fuelled 99% of trans-Pacific voyages in 2015. The amount needed would have been just 1% of all hydrogen produced in 2019. Even the space they calculated would be required at ports to produce green hydrogen was “pretty reasonable”, says Elise Georgeff, associate researcher on the ICCT’s marine programme.

But it will not come cheap. More than $1.4tn of capital investment will be needed if the shipping industry is to decarbonise by 2050. This is based on ammonia (made from hydrogen) being the dominant low-carbon fuel. Ammonia is already moved in huge quantities around the world and, while toxic and corrosive, is easier than hydrogen to ship and distribute.

A joint venture in Saudi Arabia plans to make 1.5m tons of green ammonia a year by 2025 – to be shipped and cracked back into hydrogen for buses and trucks. Hundreds of such plants would be needed to decarbonise shipping. Ammonia has the advantage that it can be burned in an internal combustion engine, although that produces nitrogen oxides, potent greenhouse gases. Methods to eliminate these emissions are being worked on.

The ICCT calculates that hydrogen could have fuelled 99% of trans-Pacific voyages in 2015. (Credit: DabartiCFI/Shutterstock)

The ICCT team also found that any trip made with hydrogen could be made with ammonia, but Georgeff urges careful evaluation of the sustainability of future marine fuels, including renewable sourcing. In the meantime, wind-assisted technologies can help lower ship emissions, and potentially extend the range of hydrogen-powered ships as well as lower costs – something Georgeff is now assessing.

Ammonia and hydrogen are also being explored as aviation fuels (see Sustainable aviation fuels get powerful boost from pandemic). In the UK, Reaction Engines and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are working to demonstrate how ammonia could be used for short-haul flights (of up to 2,000km). The system wouldn’t require wholesale aircraft or engine redesign, and more of the energy produced by burning ammonia is utilised compared to kerosene. If the concept is proven, the research team anticipates ammonia-based propulsion systems could be ready to enter service by 2030.

Now all that’s required to develop a brave new hydrogen economy is the collective will of governments, industry and finance to turn that love of hydrogen that the IEA’s Birol talks about into scalable and bankable solutions. Then it can really hit the road and the high seas.

UK’s Tees Valley to become a ‘living lab’ to test green hydrogen for transport

THE TEES VALLEY in the north-east of England is to be the UK’s first hydrogen transport hub, with £3m in government funding announced this month to set up a research and development campus in the region, and kickstart a series of trials using green hydrogen to move goods and passengers.

According to the masterplan, the Tees Valley, which produces more than half of the UK’s hydrogen, will be a “living lab” to understand what role hydrogen can play in decarbonising the UK’s transport sector and develop a “transferable blueprint” for hydrogen transport hubs elsewhere in the UK and internationally. The UK, which will host COP26 at the end of this year, has a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by the end of the decade, compared with 1990 levels.

Operational trials are expected to begin in 2025 once production, storage and distribution facilities have been developed, but before then “pop-up” demonstrator projects could see shops, supermarkets, online retailers, warehouse operators and delivery companies trialling hydrogen-powered transport to move goods, and carry out last-mile deliveries.

The Tees Valley is to be the UK's first hydrogen transport hub. (Credit: Nigel Rusby/Shutterstock)

Local transport operators will also be working to deliver emission-free hydrogen passenger services, such as on-demand regional buses, or zero-emission refuse vehicles.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The hub will establish the UK as a global leader in hydrogen technology, paving the way for its use across all transport modes and propelling us towards our net-zero goals.”

The DforT said the government will also provide £4.8m, subject to business case, to support the development of a second hydrogen hub in Holyhead in Wales, which will pilot the creation of hydrogen from renewable energy and its use as a zero-emission fuel in HGVs.

Last year, the government’s Hydrogen for Transport programme provided £6.3m for a fleet of hydrogen-powered refuse trucks to be introduced in Glasgow, and a hydrogen-powered train successfully completed its first mainline trials.

Angeli  Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD.  She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the  environment and sustainability.  @AngeliMehta.

Main picture credit: Denis Balibouse/Reuters
IEA  green hydrogen  Carbon Trust  CCS  Hyundai  Nikola Motors  Scania  HyShip  ICCT  shipping  Tees Valley 

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