Hydrogen and fuel cell technology has a range of applications and benefits for London – it is an efficient, green, and resilient source of energy, and also offers a viable and attractive option for fuelling London’s growth. The advantage of using hydrogen as an energy carrier is that there are no harmful emissions, and water is the only by-product – this presents a very attractive option for being a key part in ensuring better air quality in London.
To learn more about the technology we have compiled some of the most commonly asked questions around hydrogen and fuel cells.
Hydrogen is a chemical element making up 75% of the mass of the entire universe but is rarely in a naturally free state. Rather, it is bonded to other elements. For example, when combined with oxygen, it forms water – H2
Hydrogen gas is colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-toxic. Hydrogen when burnt releases heat. Alternatively hydrogen can be reacted with oxygen electrochemically in a fuel cell to produce heat as well as electricity. Hydrogen can be used as an energy vector, as a way to move, covert and store energy. It is potentially one of the most flexible and broadly applicable energy vectors available. It could have a role in almost every part of the UK energy system, and if hydrogen is produced in a low carbon way it can be used to decarbonise any sector it penetrates.
Very little of the hydrogen on Earth is in a freely-available form – it is usually present in a compound with other elements. To use the hydrogen, it must be extracted from these compounds. Hydrogen can be made from existing fuels like oil, petrol, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or natural gas, or by using electricity – including from renewable sources (via the electrolysis of water). Currently the majority of hydrogen comes from natural gas, by steam reforming of the hydrocarbon feedstock to produce synthesis gas (syngas), primarily a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
Hydrogen can be produced from renewable fuels, including biogas, when the cost of such renewable energy becomes more competitive. In addition to electrolysis from water, other ways of producing hydrogen could include renewable hydrogen being generated through energy from waste facilities; recovery from biogas and/or biomass; and by sourcing it as a by-product from other processes. In the context of hydrogen transport, the industry has recognised the need to move to low carbon sources of hydrogen. Finally, a number of industries (such as the chemical industry) already produce large amounts of hydrogen as a by-product which is often unused. This is another efficient way of using existing resources and reducing emissions.
The ideal scenario is to produce hydrogen so that life cycle carbon emissions are zero. This can be done by using renewable energy (like wind or solar) to power an electrolyser to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. As an example, Swindon has a hydrogen refuelling station where the electrolyser is powered by solar energy. The hydrogen can be compressed, stored and transported from the site of production to the point of use. Running a fuel cell on this hydrogen produces zero carbon emissions. Three new hydrogen refuelling stations are being built in London for summer 2015 by the Greater London Authority-led HyFIVE project
which will produce hydrogen on site through electrolysis.
Fuel cells have various advantages compared to conventional power sources, such as internal combustion engines (ICEs) or batteries. Although some of the fuel cells’ attributes are only valid for some applications, most advantages are more general.
- Fuel cells have a higher efficiency than diesel or gas engines.
- Most fuel cells operate silently, compared to ICEs. They are therefore ideally suited for use within buildings such as hospitals.
- Fuel cells can eliminate pollution caused by burning fossil fuels; for hydrogen-fuelled fuel cells, the only by-product at point of use is water.
- If the hydrogen comes from the electrolysis of water driven by renewable energy, then using fuel cells eliminates greenhouse gases (GHGs) over the whole cycle.
- Fuel cells do not need conventional fuels such as oil or gas and can therefore reduce economic dependence on oil producing countries, creating greater energy security for the user nation.
- Since hydrogen can be produced anywhere where there is water and a source of power, generation of fuel can be distributed and does not have to be grid-dependent.
- The use of stationary fuel cells to generate power at the point of use allows for a decentralised power grid that is potentially more stable.
- Low temperature fuel cells, i.e. Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) and Direct Methanol (DM) have low heat transmission which makes them ideal for military applications.
- Higher temperature fuel cells produce high-grade process heat along with electricity and are well suited to cogeneration applications such as combined heat and power for residential use.
- Fuel cells have a longer operation time compared to batteries; this is achieved by doubling the amount of fuel instead of increasing the capacity of the unit.
- Unlike batteries, fuel cells have no “memory effect” which prevents issues of there being less charge than expected over time.
There are a number of uses for hydrogen as a fuel for transport applications. Current uses – in the United Kingdom and abroad – include buses, taxis, passenger cars, vans, scooters, forklift trucks, boats and ferries.
The first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have arrived in the UK and are available to purchase. With this being a new technology – first generation product – the vehicles are being produced in small numbers which translates to a higher capital cost compared to conventional vehicles. Funding streams are available to early adopters reducing the capital cost. Also on the market, services to retrofit a diesel-fuelled internal combustion engine van to be instead fuelled by hydrogen gas – with the associated carbon reduction benefits – can also be acquired.
As of January 2015 in London there are three operational hydrogen refuelling stations, one publically accessible based in West London (Hatton Cross), North London (Hendon), and the other in East London (Leyton) to refuel London’s hydrogen buses. A further three will be added by summer 2015.
Beyond London there are another seven refuelling locations in the UK, covering Aberdeen, Swindon, Millbrook, Coventry, Birmingham, Loughborough and Sheffield. Other smaller stations exist in more remote areas such as Glamorgan, Bristol, and Methyl in Fife.
In 2012 the government’s Office of Low Emission Vehicles launched UK H2Mobility – an initiative bringing together key stakeholders to develop a business case and strategic plan for the roll-out of hydrogen fuel cell transport technology from 2015. UK H2Mobility has recommended that an initial national network of 65 hydrogen refuelling stations is required to kick start a national uptake of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
In October 2014 the government announced it will make available £9m of funding to ensure the UK has 15 hydrogen refuelling stations across the country by the end of 2015. A further £2m has been made available to help boost hydrogen fuel cell vehicle numbers in public sector fleets.
Various European cities – in particular Copenhagen, Oslo, Hamburg and London are developing their own hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. Beyond Europe, California, Japan and Korea are all investing heavily in the technology.
Hydrogen vehicles take three-four minutes to refuel compared to electric vehicles which require a far greater amount of time to recharge once the battery has ran out (anything from 30 minutes to nine hours). Hydrogen vehicles have the same range as any other conventional gasoline vehicles (the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell for example has a range of approximately 350 miles) whereas most electric vehicles have a driving range of 100 to 200 miles max, e.g. Nissan Leaf can travel for 100 miles before requiring a charge.
There are uses and advantages for both technologies. In London – for instance – where there is a severe lack of parking space it raises questions on how a large uptake of electric vehicles could be catered for as cars would need to be parked on pavements for a number of hours in order to charge. In comparison a large uptake of hydrogen vehicles would put no extra pressure on existing infrastructure as cars could refuel in minutes. Vehicle manufacturers are investing billions in developing this technology with companies like BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and others collaborating on different aspects to kick-start the sector. Refuelling providers are also investing and developing their technology with Air Liquide, Air Products, BOC, ITM Power, Linde, OMV, Shell, Total and others collaborating on different projects looking at building a reliable refuelling infrastructure network.