• Hydrogen: so what’s the use?

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      Philip Sharman

      IFRF Director

The stretch of railway between Cuxhaven and Buxtehude in northern Germany is perhaps an unlikely place for history to be made.  But here, in September, the first-ever hydrogen-fuelled trains to enter commercial service were unveiled to the world.  Built in France (by my old firm Alstom) and with a range of 1000km per tank of fuel, this pair of zero-emission trains – another 14 are scheduled for delivery by 2021 – mean cuts in carbon, air/noise pollution and running costs compared with the diesel trains being superseded on this otherwise unremarkable route.

This striking story was a timely reminder of hydrogen’s huge potential as a highly versatile energy carrier that could touch virtually every aspect of our lives.  It underlined the fact that – albeit usually well away from the glare of publicity – hydrogen is gradually emerging as a real-world energy option for a whole range of uses.  Indeed, predicting that the pace could really pick up, a new paper by DNV GL forecasts that global demand for hydrogen for energy could leap from 1000t/year today to 39-161Mt/year by 2050.  An impressive figure – but is it justified, and what exactly are the uses where hydrogen might soon start making its mark?

Multiple Markets

Whenever a ‘new’ energy option comes up for discussion, it’s easy to get embroiled in futuristic visions of brave new worlds with a very different look and feel from the one we know today.  Where hydrogen is concerned, though, as the Hydrogen Declaration signed by EU Energy Ministers in September points out, considerable potential lies in a less eye-catching direction. “Green hydrogen,” it states, “provides wide application possibilities in conventional industries”.  (Personally, I’d certainly add ‘blue’ hydrogen produced via decarbonised fossil fuel routes to renewables-derived ‘green’ hydrogen.)

Virtually the whole current hydrogen market is accounted for by established industries such as petroleum refining and ammonia production, while the chemicals and pharma sectors already use big amounts for on-site power generation.  Surely, then, here is an inviting open door to push on in terms of encouraging industry to commit (or commit more) to hydrogen – not least by modifying fossil-fuel combustion equipment to burn decarbonising hydrogen instead.  With regard to industrial process heating, however, the DNV GL report does not envisage hydrogen making big inroads by 2030, although it does foresee a foothold in the cement, aluminium and other industries by 2050.  But might that be too pessimistic?  In November, Toyota announced a world-first: a general-purpose, zero-carbon, low-NOx hydrogen burner for industrial use, now operating on the forging line at its Honsha plant (see our Combustion Industry News blog of 25 November).

Looking beyond ‘traditional’ industrial markets, my last blogpost described how hydrogen could generate grid electricity using modified combined-cycle gas turbines, or could be fed at low concentrations into natural gas grids.  An interesting development came to light in November when it was revealed that Russia’s Gazprom, mega-exporter of natural gas to Europe, is exploring hydrogen production from natural gas and creation of a massive $175 billion hydrogen market by mid-century (see another of our CIN blogs of 25 November) .

Many of the most promising possibilities for harnessing hydrogen, though, revolve around fuel cells.  Using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water the only by-product, these electrochemical devices certainly tick the versatility, high-efficiency and decarbonisation boxes.  The challenge is to boost performance and durability, cut costs, develop market incentives, devise standards, attract investment and so pave the way for transitioning from tentative initial niche applications to a major breakthrough into commercial markets.  Supporting a whole portfolio of pilots and prototypes in areas such as multi-scale combined heat and power (CHP) for industrial, commercial and domestic uses, initiatives like the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking and the US Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program are now hard at work on this.

The Road to Revolution?

But it’s the transport sector where fuel cells are arguably closest to achieving a transformational breakthrough.  Virtually every mode could be part of the revolution.  As well as arriving in Germany, hydrogen trains are on the move elsewhere too: for example, consideration is being given to using them on the UK’s non-electrified Oxford to Cambridge line, while France wants to see the first hydrogen trains take to its railways by 2022.  Trucks and buses are another key focus of activity, with over 100 Toyota fuel cell-powered buses due for delivery to Tokyo in time for the 2020 Olympic Games, for instance.  Even maritime transport could be about to feel the first winds of change: in California, plans are in place to finish building the world’s first commercial fuel cell-powered ferry, christened ‘Water-Go-Round’, by next September.

Fuel cell cars could be as big a game-changer as any.  Offering significantly superior mileage between refuelling compared with ‘standard’ electric vehicles, they also only take a matter of minutes to ‘fill up’.  Nevertheless, many hurdles to widespread take-up remain to be tackled and the Hydrogen Mobility Europe initiative is addressing one of the biggest: the need for adequate networks of affordable, reliable Hydrogen Refuelling Stations (HRSs) that make investing in a hydrogen car practical and so remove a key brake on sales.  Globally, over 300 HRSs were in operation by the end of 2017, with Japan leading the way with 91.

Undeniably, such numbers are modest.  Indeed, hydrogen energy is a field where the potential is big, aspirations often run high but realising them is another matter.  To take an example, the Japanese government wants to see 40,000 fuel cell vehicles on Japan’s roads by 2021; but with the current figure barely reaching 2000, this looks like a long shot.

Last month, in its new hydrogen report, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change hit the nub of the problem.  Arguing that hydrogen is a credible decarbonisation option – and the multitude of applications summarised in this blogpost underlines that point – the Committee affirmed that making it happen on any meaningful scale will depend on commitment from government and its support for the development of industrial capabilities.

To put it another way, when it comes to determining how big a role hydrogen will play in meeting energy demand and tackling climate change, the world is surely fast approaching make-your-mind-up time.  For the combustion industry, in view of the real shot in the arm it could receive from a flourishing hydrogen sector, the stakes could not be higher – and that will be the focus of the next blogpost in this series.