Green horizons

With the development of hydrogen as a viable alternate fuel gathering pace, Dr Graham Cooley of ITM Power talks to Ben Clark about the significance of hydrogen and the efforts being taken to encourage its adoption

Fossil fuel-electric hybrid vehicles have been commonplace in the market for a number of years now and as more car manufacturers enter the new market this trend is only set to continue. However, in the pursuit of cutting emissions and producing a much reduced carbon footprint within the industry, there is increasing pressure from consumer groups, government bodies and the car manufacturers themselves to push for new solutions. Plug-in electric vehicles have experienced a recent rise in success over the last couple of years, not least because of the surge in popularity created by Elon Musk and the Tesla brand. However, there remains a limit to plug-in electric becoming fully adopted by the all-important consumer for two key reasons, and the solution may lie in the application of hydrogen.

“The two major drawbacks of a plug-in electric vehicle, from a customer’s point of view, is the range and refuelling time,” explains Dr Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power, a pioneering company in the development of hydrogen as a source of energy in Europe. “Hydrogen fuel cells are a way of implementing an emission free electric drive train, which overcomes both these major obstacles.” So with this in mind, can hydrogen represent a viable future for alternate fuels being adopted on a wide scale by the market? A quick glance at both the global automotive and fuel retail industries seems to suggest so.

For a start Toyota, the world’s biggest car manufacturer, recently launched the Toyota Mirai, the company’s first production ready fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), which became available to the European market in September 2015. Bucking the trend set by Tesla, Toyota shows no sign of developing full plug-in electric vehicles. Both Hyundai and Honda are following suit with the former’s ix35 claiming the title for being the world’s first hydrogen production vehicle in 2013 and the latter due to release its FCV by early 2016. Meanwhile, BMW, who is working collaboratively with Toyota, is openly testing the technology in a hydrogen iteration of both the successful hybrid i8 sports car and 5 Series GT. And in 2013 Nissan, Ford and Daimler signed an agreement to work together to each launch affordable FCEV’s into the market by 2017.

With such attention growing across the market Graham explains why hydrogen is so advantageous: “The major benefit is its lack of emissions,” he says. “In fact the only emission from a hydrogen fuel cell is water. Of course, this is great when looking at reducing carbon footprint but it also improves the air quality, particularly in a city, and this is just as high on our agenda. In terms of range and refuelling time, because of highly pure and high pressure gas we will see cars with ranges from 300-400 miles per tank of hydrogen, with refuelling times on a par with traditional fuels.”

The issue of carbon neutrality scores another point on the side of FCEVs over plug-in EVs. When charging a vehicle off of the grid the consumer is drawing off a combination of renewable and fossil fuelled power and therefore gives the vehicle a carbon footprint. With hydrogen cells however, the power is inherently renewable from a hydrogen source and ITM Power has been central in extending this to thehydrogen’s production as well. “Our electrolyser technology is a real innovation and it allows forecourts to generate their own hydrogen thus eliminating the need for delivery, which reduces carbon footprint and cost. This is a very significant development in rolling out a viable infrastructure for hydrogen fuel,” says Graham.

However, it is in infrastructure where much of the challenges facing the adoption of hydrogen as a widespread fuel lay. “Ultimately, the challenges are the same as rolling out any new fuel and it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation,” continues Graham. “The vehicles need refuelling stations but the forecourt operators need to know that there are customers creating demand, otherwise it’s not worth the investment. This is where we need mobility programmes.”

In September 2015 the Hydrogen Mobility Europe project (H2ME) was launched. For the first time the project brings together the collaborative efforts of many national mobility schemes across Europe to support the introduction and comes with 32 million euros of EU investment. The ultimate aim of the project is to create the world’s largest network of refuelling stations, which gives FCEV drivers viability to adopt the technology. To facilitate the development 200 FCEV’s and 125 FC range-extended vans will be put into customer’s hands, a long-term evaluation campaign to demonstrate the readiness of the technology for a mass market will be carried out and continuous assessments and improvements will be crucial.

“This is a really significant moment in the development of hydrogen,” highlights Graham. “Not only is the programme trying to overcome the challenges in its development, but we are now working together to do it. There is now a lot more unification between government bodies, private organisations and car manufacturers to really push it. The investment is also consistent as in the UK we have seen similar funding for the previous two years.”

As part of the scheme, 29 hydrogen-refuelling stations will be placed in ten countries in addition to those already being deployed by national projects. So far ITM, who is leading the UK’s efforts, has installed 11 refuelling stations, predominantly in London, and has a project pipeline in the multiple millions as it looks ahead. Under the national UKH2Mobility programme, of which ITM Power is a founding member funded by the Office of Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV), 65 hydrogen-refuelling stations are envisaged to be installed throughout the UK by 2020. These will be installed by a combination of ITM and other station investors.

With these mobility programmes in place across Europe, and similar initiatives developing across the world, particularly in California and Japan, the all-important infrastructure is being deployed to cope with a future of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Of course, alongside the physical developments it is also a major focus for the mobility programmes and car manufacturers to attract consumers to the new solutions and dispel any safety and practicality concerns that may exist. This year’s collaborative mobility programme, however, is a major milestone in the development of hydrogen’s future and Graham assures that the coming year will be even more significant.

“The main focal point will remain on refuelling stations as these have to be there before the vehicles are properly rolled out,” he outlines. “Therefore, there will be a number of refuelling stations opening in London. Toyota will be delivering vehicles into London and other car companies won’t be far behind. This will be a continuing process with lots of things starting over the next year. Importantly, over the next few years I definitely see a horizon where FCEVs become common place on the UK roads.”

Away from the FCEVs and hydrogen-refuelling stations, Power-to-Gas (P2G) energy storage is also a significant application in the development of hydrogen power and stored renewable energy. “This is an important development as it allows us to store huge amounts of renewable energy in the gas grid, which is three times the size of the power grid,” explains Graham. This being another major focus for ITM Power, P2G presents a solution for overcoming inherent problems with renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, which can only supply demand when active. This inevitably leads to an imbalanced grid and wasted excess renewable energy. Converting the excess energy to hydrogen makes it storable and makes balancing the grid with renewable power a much more achievable and efficient task.

Driven by innovation and technological development from a number of pioneering companies across the world, the progress of hydrogen as a widely used source of renewable energy is exciting. With financial support coming from government organisations it seems likely that hydrogen, in more applications than one, will be playing a growing part in our lives in the near future. This is significant in that, as more and more alternative sources of energy come to market and constant technological progression makes systems more effective, hydrogen brings just another viable option to a sustainable future defined by a range of renewable energy solutions.

ITM Power
ITM Power manufactures integrated hydrogen energy solutions which are rapid response and high pressure that meet the requirements for grid balancing and energy storage services, and for the production of clean fuel for transport, renewable heat and chemicals.

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