There's Way More to Hydrogen Than Just Powering Cars

By Tom Pritchard on at

These days we hear an awful lot about electric cars replacing the older dirty cars than run on petrol or diesel. Electrical engines don't produce any pollution as they run, which means they don't reduce the quality of the local air and screw with our lungs as a result. But whenever you bring up electric cars, inevitably someone will start going on about how we should be investing in hydrogen instead. Because hydrogen fuel doesn't come with all the issues regarding range, power capacity, and recharge time.

And those people do have a point, though it would be helpful if they weren't so condescending about it. But we've seen in the past that hydrogen is a viable fuel source for cars, albeit one that hasn't had as much infrastructure investment. I wouldn't be surprised if you could pin some of the blame on Tesla, indirectly as its effect may have been. But hydrogen is far from dead, even if it seems work on hydrogen cars is crawling along at the pace of a stoned turtle. There's a lot happening out of public view, and to get a better understanding of that I spoke to Andy Marsh, CEO of Plug Power, a fuel cell company working towards making hydrogen power a cost-effective solution for businesses.

Essentially, Plug Power's goal is to ensure businesses can take full advantage of hydrogen power behind the scenes, particularly where distribution is concerned. Andy spoke to me about a number of his clients, including retail powerhouses Amazon and Walmart, who had upgraded their electric-powered warehouse vehicles (forklifts in particular) with hydrogen fuel cells. Instead of running on lead acid batteries, which take time to replace and recharge, hydrogen fuel cells can be refuelled in roughly the same amount of time it takes to refuel a car - thereby reducing the amount of time each vehicle isn't in use.

Andy claims that while using lithium ion batteries, like electric cars, would be twice as efficient from the perspective of power consumption, hydrogen offers twice the range. Couple that with the increased refuelling speed and you're making big steps towards improving efficiency and productivity. As an example, Andy told me Amazon cut the number of forklifts they need by 15 per cent, because switching to hydrogen meant they could have fewer vehicles working longer. With around 15-20% more work done each hour, they're now much more valuable tools.

According to Andy, going into distribution was a deliberate move to avoid the classic argument of infrastructure vs use. Having cars running on hydrogen naturally requires there to be enough refuelling stations, and that rollout can take time and money to accomplish. In distribution, however, you don't have those same concerns. Since everything is running in one location, you don't have to worry about whether vehicles are going to die before they can refill their fuel tanks. It's not exactly a niche operation either; PlugPower currently has around 20,000 units in use.

Hydrogen in Cars

Despite the increased focus in plug-in electric vehicles, investment in hydrogen vehicles isn't dead. Toyota seems quite keen on keeping the possibility of hydrogen cars and transport alive if my inbox filled with emails about the things its been doing is anything to go by - especially with relation to the Japanese Olympics. Hyundai, Mercedes, Honda, and Welsh-based Riversimple have all released production cars powered by hydrogen, while plenty of other companies have dabbled with concepts and prototypes over the years.

And those cars are being used. London's MET police recently added 11 Toyota Mirais to its fleet, for both marked and unmarked police work. A few years ago Lotus developed a black cab that ran on Hydrogen, designed to be put in use around the 2012 Olympics, and there have even been companies testing hydrogen-powered trains

While he has a lot to gain by the increased adoption of hydrogen fuel cells in cars, Andy doesn't believe there's no future for plug-in electric vehicles. He feels that electric vehicles will have their place as the car that isn't used very much, and doesn't need to be on the road for extended periods of time. The kind of car that the owner is able to plug in and recharge every night is where a battery-only car makes the most sense, according to him.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, is more suited to industrial use and vehicles that are shared assets or need to be on the road for long periods of time. Basically any time where the owner is actively losing money anytime the vehicle is not in use. Taxis, buses, the aforementioned forklifts, and anything else that's in use for multiple hours at a time and would benefit from a quick gas-refuel rather than an extended period of recharging time. Fast charging technology is improving all the time, but it can't really compete with refilling a fuel tank.

The price of hydrogen is a lot more stable as well, seeing as how it doesn't necessarily rely on huge industrial projects and geological work to get our hands on it. Not all the time anyway.

As for people who may want both, there's also the possibility of a hybrid engine. They mostly seem to exist as concepts, rather than production models, but the fact it that they exist is something.

Where Hydrogen Comes From

But powering vehicles is only a small part of what hydrogen is capable of. It's also got a lot of potential in other industries, mainly thanks to the fact it behaves a lot like a fossil fuel - just without the whole 'planet destroying pollution' thing.

As many people will already know, Hydrogen is rather flammable. That's why we're able to use it as a source of fuel in cars, after all. It's also completely pollution free when it burns, with water being the only byproduct of the whole process. No nasty radioactive waste, no greenhouse gasses, and none of the nastier gases that kill people and cause things like acid rain. The downside to this is that hydrogen is nowhere near as dense as fossil fuels (and nuclear fuel), part of which means it doesn't hold as much energy. So you need to burn more of it to get comparable output.

The other obvious downside is actually getting hold of the stuff. Hydrogen may be the most abundant element in the universe, but the lack of density means it'll float away if we let it. Luckily we are able to make it and store it ourselves in two different (and contrasting ways). The bad way is by a process referred to as 'reforming fossil fuels' using a device called a fuel processor, or reformer. Because fossil fuels are essentially hydrocarbons at their core, it's possible to split away the hydrogen and release the leftover carbon as carbon dioxide.

Put simply, you can mix natural gas or methanol with water vapour, which is pumped through a heated chamber containing a catalyst. That process splits off the hydrogen, but isn't a particularly green process. There's still leftover carbon dioxide (and sometimes carbon monoxide) that makes its way into the atmosphere and won't do us any good from a climate change perspective. Unfortunately Andy tells me that this currently where we get most of our hydrogen, but there is a way to get hydrogen without adding more crap to the atmosphere.

Image: US Department of Energy

As you will have been told at school, two thirds of our planet is made of water, which is comprised of two hydrogen atoms attached to an oxygen atom. It's possible to rip away the hydrogen using electrolysis, though this naturally requires quite a bit of electricity to accomplish. Scientists have managed to complete the process at low voltages using AAA batteries, but the fact is we still need the initial power to generate the hydrogen.

Fortunately, we're getting quite good at generating clean sustainable electricity, and by using this electricity to power the electrolysis we can effectively produce lovely clean hydrogen with an efficiency rating of around 80 per cent. Even in this country, a hydrogen production facility was built by Honda over in Swindon. The facility isn't connected to the national grid and uses solar energy to power the process. The added benefit to this method is that it opens up better opportunities to store electricity.

Hydrogen as Energy Storage

Credit: TomFawls/Wikimedia Commons

The most interesting thing I was told about Hydrogen was the fact it can be used to store electricity with a surprisingly high level of efficiency. When most people think about electricity storage, they probably think of giant battery rigs that can be used as backup sources should traditional energy fail. You can get those things in houses, by wind farms, even inside sports stadiums, but there are other options.

The thing about electricity generation is managing production and demand, as to not let all the power go to waste. Managing renewable sources is a little difficult, since you can't control the sun or wind as you can with a combustible fuel or nuclear reaction. There are going to be times when production outweighs demand, but rather than letting that energy go to waste, or pumping it into a giant battery, you can use it to produce hydrogen. That gas can then be stored away like any other gas, or transported elsewhere far more easily than a regular electrical current. Then it's a simple matter of burning the gas to unlock that energy and produce electricity. The burning process only leave water as a byproduct, and because the initial hydrogen was produced using renewable energy you have a perfectly green way of producing power.

Remember a lot of hydrogen is sourced from natural gas fields already, so we've already dealt with the issue of figuring out how to handle it. Efficiency isn't a huge factor either, since the electrolysis itself is 80% efficient, and burning the resulting hydrogen off for power is 50-60% efficient. It's from perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than letting everything go to waste, and it solves that classic argument of "what about when it's not sunny" or "what happens if it stops being windy". Not that idiots won't find something to moan about, because that's what moaning idiots live for.

Hydrogen in Asia

What's most interesting is that this sort of thing is already being done in China. The country has been pushing forward with clean energy production, which is helpful when your country's pollution problem becomes global news. It's been doing this by heavily investing in renewable and alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and, you guessed it, hydrogen.

China is a large country with a very large population, but that population is packed into the western part of the country near the coast. The further inland you go, the fewer people there are. Some of that is the result of the terrain – around two-thirds of the Chinese landmass is made up of mountains or plateaus, neither of which are particularly useful for mass human habitation. Mountains tend to be quite windy, however, and Andy tells me that the Chinese government has been using this to its advantage - generating wind and using the power to create hydrogen. Hydrogen that can be transported, stored, and burnt off when needed.

Transporting raw electricity is problematic as well, and often leads to losses in transmission. The greater the distance that electricity has to travel, the more overall power will be lost on the process. Hydrogen doesn't disappear during transport, so the the long distances don't matter nearly as much - especially if it's travelling by pipeline.

Despite this potential, Professor Zong Qiang Mao of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology admitted in an interview with cH2ange that no government officials have fully committed to hydrogen - in part because they have other areas of energy production to focus on. That said Professor Mao claims hydrogen and China are both a perfect match, referencing the government publicly declaring their hope for a "peaceful rise to modernisation" and the fact hydrogen is a power source less restricted by geography than fossil fuels. For that reason he says its a resource that isn't likely to lead to conflict and geopolitical tension.

And it's not just China. In the run up to the 2020 Olympics, Japan has been focusing on hydrogen's potential - especially in the transport sector. Tokyo's Metropolitan Government has plans to create something called the 'Hydrogen Society'. Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe wants hydrogen to be the legacy of the next Olympics, much like how Shinkansen high-speed train system became the legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The goals of this are to be nicer to the environment, create new jobs and stimulate the economy, plus make sure they can use fuel cell technology to its fullest - namely to ease power shortages following a natural disaster. The specific goals laid out in 2016 for the 2020 Olympics are to increase the number of hydrogen fuelling stations in Tokyo from eight to 35, the number of cars to 6,000, and boost the number of fuel cell buses to over over 100. The Japanese government has also noted that it's much harder to ignite in most conditions, and can be handled by existing natural gas and petrol infrastructure.

They may seem like small goals, but considering this is what's happening in a single Japanese city you can imagine the kind of impact it could have if hydrogen adoption spread across the rest of the country.

Other Uses

But there are other ways human beings can – and do – utilise hydrogen. For starters, it's usually added to natural gas supplies in trace amounts, and researchers have found that you can add as much as 30 per cent hydrogen without causing any incompatibility issues with current appliances. What's more, it's been suggested that the gas grid could be completely run on hydrogen with few issues, in a bid to cut down natural gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, as The Telegraph has pointed out in the past, the UK's gas heating infrastructure was originally designed for hydrogen before the North Sea gas boom. That means it would only need a minor upgrade to handle the stuff, and some estimates suggest it's possible to transition to a pure-hydrogen heating system by 2030 - a target that has already been taken on by the 'H21 City Gate' project in Leeds.

Hydrogen is also used on rocket fuel, with scientists recently discovering a way to separate the gas from water in a microgravity environment - no easy feat. As for generating energy on Earth? It could, in theory, but it's not really a viable solution by itself.

Using hydrogen as energy storage relies on being able to burn off hydrogen and generate electricity, but it can't really do that by itself and remain sustainable or environmentally friendly. As mentioned before, the only way we have to produce green hydrogen is electrolysis, and that requires electricity. The laws of thermodynamics stand in the way of a clean hydrogen-only system, so the only sensible (and clean) way to get that electricity is to use renewable sources. You could use fossil fuels or nuclear generated energy, electrolysis doesn't discriminate, but we really shouldn't.

On top of this we have all the existing industrial uses, with hydrogen being used to create fertiliser, in the glassmaking industry, the creation of cyclohexane and methanol (with have their own respective uses), hydrogenating vegetable fat, as rocket fuel, and is used as a flushing gas by electronics companies developing computer chips.


Credit: Bob n Renee/Flickr

But despite all the good that can be done, Hydrogen fuel is not without its issues. Even when you ignore the fact that it's not very dense and doesn't store nearly as much energy as the dirty fuels. You need a lot more of it to get the same amount of energy, which itself can also lead to problems with storage.

Thankfully it's not the worst issue to have. As Andy told me, much of the infrastructure that's already in place for fossil fuels can be adapted to handle hydrogen gas, including petrol stations. While there will be work needed to adapt infrastructure and install hydrogen pumps at conventional road-side refuelling stations, the fact that almost everything you need is already there is incredibly beneficial - including transportation.

While refuelling is different to petrol and diesel, the time and processes required aren't hugely different, and as mentioned before it's still significantly faster than even the best fast-charging systems currently in use. Things have come a long way over the past several years, and any advancement is great news for the hydrogen industry as a whole. All we need now is support in the commercial sector so we can all start enjoying the benefits.

I've only really scratched the surface of what hydrogen can do, and all the different ways it can be applied - especially in industries that are increasingly increasingly looking for ways to reduce their carbon output. Fuelling our cars is definitely one of those uses, and one that pretty much everyone may be able to take advantage of someday, but there are plenty of other ways it can work behind the scenes to improve the way things are - all we need to do is ensure we have ways the appropriate energy infrastructure to help us produce the stuff.

Featured image: Zero Emission Resource Organisation/Flickr