Are hydrogen-powered cars the future?
Last year I had the pleasure of driving around London in a hydrogen-powered Hyundai ix35, one of the first mass-production hydrogen cars to hit the market. Hyundai was photographing every single street in London to build a picture of the city that could only be rivalled by local taxi drivers. To acquire this cabbie’s knowledge, a driving event took place over 50 days with the Hyundai tackling every street in a six-mile radius around central London.
With the challenge of driving a left-hand-drive car down narrow streets aside, the ix35 was a pleasure to drive, as silent and smooth as an electric car but with a much greater range. The official figures say the ix35 will do 369miles on one tank, if driven carefully, but another stunt from the company that saw one of these cars drive continuously around the M25 for 6,096 miles. During this event, the hydrogen-powered car achieved more than 400 miles to a tank.
That’s double the amount most electric cars will do on a single charge. Of course, the difference is that it’s now quite easy to find an electric charging station whereas hydrogen filling stations are few and far between and this could be what's holding back the sale of these green vehicles.
At the moment, the UK has a handful of hydrogen filling stations, most of which are in London with the other scattered along main trunk roads. The 400-mile range of the ix35 means that most of these are reachable if you did need to do a long distance but there’s always the chance that one might be out of action, leaving you stranded.
Hydrogen London is leading the push to deliver new filling stations in the city with its London Hydrogen Network Expension (LHNE) project. New filling stations started popping up in 2015 and the organisation is keen to have London lead the way on infrastructure.
Other projects have been developed to build the hydrogen infrastructure in other parts of the country. Birmingham university has created the Midlands Hydrogen Ring, which will serve the area around the city. It hopes to have 20 filling stations by 2020.
Not everyone is getting behind hydrogen-powered cars. Wolfgang Ziebart, technical design director at Jaguar Land Rover, said in an interview with International Business Times: "Hydrogen doesn't make sense. It is a complete nonsense. The well-to-wheel relationship is a disaster in hydrogen." He went on to say that hydrogen cars currently on sale, such as the £66,000 Toyota Mirai, are not really hydrogen powered, because they use the fuel cell to create electricity, which then drives the car.
One of the biggest barriers to this alternative fuel is storing the hydrogen. As it’s 14-times lighter than air, it can easily escape containment. This has been addressed by vehicle makers by combining the hydrogen with various metal alloys to create hydrides, this means that heat has to be applied to allow the metal to release its hydrogen load.
A new storage method using an experimental material known as activated carbon shows promise of storing ever greater volumes of hydrogen in smaller spaces. This is even more efficient than metal hydrides as a given volume of activated carbon can safely store 2.4 times the amount of hydrogen as the same volume of compressed gas stored at 3,000 PSI. Other ways of storing hydrogen, such as pressurized glass microspheres and new carbon materials called Bucky balls and whisker scrolls are also being studied and tested, in hopes of even further increasing the volume of hydrogen stored while increasing safety.
Hydrogen still makes people think back to the Hindenburg disaster and there’s no denying that improperly handled hydrogen can be dangerous. It can combust with one-tenth the energy of gasoline but despite this, the cars are said to be safer than those with internal combustion engines.
Cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell aren’t little Hindenburgs just waiting to explode. Because the gas is so light, any puncture or damage to the fuel cell would mean the hydrogen would just escape into the air. It's unlikely it would be sitting around long enough to combust in the event of an accident. This is different to petrol or diesel powered vehicles where a punctured fuel tank would lead to fuel pooling beneath the car.
Today's hydrogen fuel tanks are also made from highly durable carbon fibre, the strength is assessed not only in crash tests but also in trials that involves bullets being fired at the tanks. Toyota’s Mirai has other safeguards, including structural integrity to protect the tanks and electronic systems that are programmed to shut down any hydrogen lines in the car if a leak is detected.
Many car manufacturers are planning for a hydrogen future but some, such as Jaguar Land Rover, are sticking solidly by their electric vehicle plans. There’s no doubt hydrogen is going to play a part in the future of transportation but it’s going to have to combat against an already established and rapidly growing electric vehicle market.
As was the case with electric cars a few years ago, the infrastructure needs to grow before mass-produced hydrogen vehicles are going to be seen regularly on our roads.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere