Beyond EVs: how to make hydrogen the auto fuel of the future
With surplus renewable-generated power and the necessary pipeline infrastructure, the Netherlands could be a vital testing ground for sustainable hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
At all the big 2019 car shows so far, there has been no disputing that electric vehicles (EVs) are the stars. One manufacturer after another has paraded shiny, sleek EVs and committed to all electric ranges in the coming years (or at least an EV version of every model). But while EVs are finally starting to capture the public’s imagination after years of being seen as the poor relation of conventional-engined cars, some people believe another fuel – hydrogen – could be the long-term future of autos.
Hydrogen has long been mooted as a fuel source for vehicles. The first successful internal combustion engine in 1806 was powered by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, decades before petrol, diesel or electricity came on the scene. From an environmental pollution perspective, hydrogen looks ideal. So-called fuel cell powertrains combine hydrogen (the most abundant element on earth) and oxygen to produce electricity, with water the only byproduct. Hydrogen is also convenient: refueling takes about five minutes compared to the hours required by EVs.
Yet while EVs seem to be slowly overcoming many of their challenges – notably battery costs, charging time, infrastructure and range – fundamental doubts over hydrogen technology have remained. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, in characteristically blunt style, says that hydrogen fuel cells are “incredibly dumb” because they are so inefficient. One oft-cited analysis by fuel cell expert Ulf Bossel shows that the large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen, compress or liquefy it for transportation, and then convert it to energy in a fuel cell, leaves around 25% for practical use. That makes battery-powered vehicles around three times more efficient than hydrogen fuel cells.
“With current technology, battery electric is simply significantly more efficient and cheaper than hydrogen fuel cells,” says Max Erich, economist at ING. “In addition, hydrogen would require the creation of a new infrastructure for distribution. There have been advances in hydrogen-powered vehicles, but the pace of change for EVs is currently greater, not least because there is much more investment in this technology. Within a few years EVs will be able to charge to 80% in less than 15 minutes. That will instantly eliminate one of the biggest advantages of hydrogen.”
Why hydrogen? Why now?
There are only a handful of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles currently available from Toyota, Hyundai and Honda. And they sell in tiny numbers because they are so expensive and there is almost no hydrogen infrastructure.
Yet the good news keeps rolling in for hydrogen fuel cell development. In June last year, Hyundai said it is collaborating with the Volkswagen Group – led by its Audi brand – on the development of hydrogen fuel vehicles and in May Audi said it is speeding up hydrogen fuel cell development. And in December Hyundai announced plans to invest more than €6 billion in developing hydrogen fuel cell technology, as part of plans to vastly increase the number of cars it sells that use the fuel source. Mercedes has also reaffirmed its support for the technology. It thinks fuel cells are likely to be used in commercial vehicles, such as buses, before cars. But its India CEO Roland Folger was recently quoted as saying “by 2040, the whole world will be driving home hydrogen cars”.
Why is the technology now enjoying a moment in the sun? One reason is that auto manufacturers are seeking to position themselves not just for next year’s market but also decades into the future. They have seen the lightning-fast switch away from diesel engines (sales of which have collapsed in the wake of emissions scandals and the imposition of bans or charges for urban use) and want to be prepared should regulations, or public opinion, change swiftly.
While no-one disputes that hydrogen is currently less efficient than battery-powered vehicles, “lithium-ion battery production [for EVs] is very energy-intensive”, notes Jon Hunt, marketing manager for Toyota and head of commercialisation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. EVs and fuel cells are currently broadly comparable in terms of CO2 emissions over the lifetime of a vehicle. However, a development outside the world of car manufacturing could be set to change that equation completely.
Laying the foundations for a hydrogen economy
In February, the Netherlands produced on average 7.6% of its final energy consumption from renewables, according to Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen. This might not sound like a lot. But the variability of solar and especially wind creates myriad problems for the energy grid. Storing energy is currently expensive and difficult. Consequently, there are times when wind farms stop operating because the grid cannot take their power.
This problem is likely to be exacerbated in the coming years. The Netherlands plans to eliminate the use of natural gas by 2050, implying a significant increase in renewable power and therefore a huge increase in power storage to smooth peaks and troughs in production (as well as a need for an alternative to natural gas for industry). While Tesla and others are experimenting with battery farms, they remain expensive and impractical on the scale required to store surplus renewable energy, even for domestic use.
One hope is that hydrogen production could provide a solution. Hydrogen (possibly converted to ammonia) is a useful energy carrier that can be readily stored and transported and can therefore be used in other applications, with zero emissions of CO2 or other pollutants, according to a recent report by research group CE Delft. While there remain many unanswered questions about the practicalities of such plans, there appears to be growing business and political support for the Netherlands to shift to a hydrogen economy.
The Hydrogen Coalition is an initiative led by Greenpeace Netherlands. It now has 27 members, including power suppliers ENGIE Netherlands and Innogy, major energy users including AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, ThyssenKrupp and Tata Steel and infrastructure providers such as Groningen Seaports and Port of Rotterdam. It calls on the Dutch government to stimulate the green hydrogen (produced using renewable resources) market to make the energy supply more sustainable. Han Fennema, CEO of Coalition member Gasunie, points out that the Netherlands is in a uniquely advantageous position. It can harvest large quantities of wind energy in the North Sea, has a large number of industrial complexes that need hydrogen, and a fully developed usable, existing gas infrastructure, which should require only minor adjustments to accommodate hydrogen (the existing pipeline is already being used to transport hydrogen between Dow Chemical and fertilizer manufacturer Yara).
The Netherlands currently has over 100 hydrogen initiatives in industry, transport, the built environment and power generation in various stages of development, and this number is growing. The Coalition’s goals are extremely ambitious and broad: Fennema notes that electricity currently accounts for less than 20% of the Netherlands’ total energy supply – hydrogen’s role will also be to provide clean fuel for heating and industry. Nevertheless, the Hydrogen Coalition’s plans could – at a stroke – overcome some of the infrastructure challenges that have long held back the growth of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and therefore pave the way for an auto revolution.
The next (but one) big thing
The technical barriers to widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells still appear formidable. “Hydrogen is extremely explosive,” says Thorsten Mehltretter, global lead, Automotive at ING. “So building a fuel tank which is safe and that people trust is very expensive currently.” He adds that issues relating to efficiency also still need to be overcome. And while the Hydrogen Coalition envisages using the existing gas network for hydrogen, given the safety concerns, “it is not that easy to simply add a hydrogen pump to a regular fuelling station”. In other words, a new fuelling infrastructure may be required for such vehicles.
There is therefore no chance that hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles will replace internal combustion engines given EVs’ current momentum and governments’ pressure on auto makers to reduce emissions. But it is at least possible that EVs won’t be the only game in town in the automotive future: a 2017 survey of 1,000 global auto executives concluded hydrogen fuel cell technology will ultimately outperform battery-powered EVs.
Certainly, after decades of stop-and-start research, and numerous setbacks, the technology associated with hydrogen – while still at an early stage of development – is evolving fast. A UK company called Kubagen has developed a material that means hydrogen fuel tanks can be smaller, cheaper and more energy-dense than existing hydrogen fuel technologies or battery-powered EVs, for instance.
Recently, the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (Differ) announced a partnership with Toyota to develop a device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from humid air. “We hope that one day, these systems can be used in private homes to power the house or to fuel a car for daily commuting purposes,” says Mihalis Tsampas, head of Differ’s Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy Applications group. And in February, the University of Science and Technology of China revealed a new type of catalyst developed to prevent hydrogen fuel cells from failure.
Perhaps most importantly, the inexorable growth of renewables in Europe, and the drive to reduce carbon emissions to meet the below 2° Paris Agreement target, could provide the impetus for hydrogen to become a viable auto fuel as part of a broad shift to a hydrogen economy. “If – and it’s a big if – there is a wholesale move towards hydrogen that enables it to be produced at scale and low cost using renewable power, and technical advances improve storage, then it just might become more competitive,” says ING’s Erich. “But we may to have to wait decades to find out.”