Kevin Fothergill, chair of the Hydrogen Hub, explains the need for collaboration between industry, government and academia in promoting a clean energy future
"The Hydrogen Council, a collective of 18 major car, energy and gas companies including Toyota and Shell has predicted that global sales of hydrogen and fuel cell-related equipment will be a massive $2.5 trillion in 2050. We need to be sure that the UK can capture its fair share of this opportunity."
Cyrus Harding, a character in Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, said: “I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel… water decomposed into its primitive elements… by electricity.” For the last century and more, we have benefited hugely from the energy stored in coal, oil and gas but this has come at great cost in the form of pollution and climate change.
We now recognise that we need to get our energy from clean, renewable sources but this is much less convenient because we need to either use it immediately or create some means of storing it for later use. We need an alternative energy carrier to replace the conventional fuels that we are so used to. This has to be easily produced from renewable electricity, stored for long periods in large quantities and transported to where it is needed.
This “new” fuel is hydrogen, produced, as Verne predicted, by a process called electrolysis using the effectively unlimited supplies of renewable electricity and water that we have at our disposal. The great news is that hydrogen produced by electrolysis can be used to produce heat and power without producing any CO2 or pollutants whatsoever – a truly sustainable answer to our energy needs.
The UK faces an unprecedented challenge to meet its obligations on carbon emissions and air quality. We will become more and more dependent on renewable electricity, probably more so than we expect, as we will need to fill the gap left by delays in the installation of nuclear capacity. Renewable generation tends to be intermittent and the more we have, the harder it is to balance supply and demand. Effective balancing of supply and demand will require storage of large amounts of energy which can readily be turned back into electricity when needed. Currently, when we think of storing energy, we assume that we can use batteries but, in this case, the speed of charging and discharging and the amount of energy that needs to be stored is beyond their capabilities. Many countries, such as Japan, Korea and Germany, have identified the production and storage of hydrogen as the best means of capturing and holding excess energy for large-scale grid balancing. It has the highest chemical energy content of any fuel by weight. For comparison, it has about three times the energy density of both petrol and natural gas and this is the reason why it is used as a rocket fuel. The other big benefit of hydrogen is that it can be readily used to produce heat, electricity or as a fuel for more mundane forms of transport, as convenient and versatile as the fossil fuels that we have all become used to.
Hydrogen can be burned in air like conventional fuels and although this produces no CO2, the high temperatures cause the nitrogen in air to form poisonous oxides (NOx). A better way to use hydrogen is in a fuel cell. This involves no burning and produces only water, electricity and heat. It is the reverse of the electrolysis process that produced the hydrogen in the first place, making this a truly sustainable, circular, clean energy process. Fuel cells were first demonstrated as long ago as 1842 by Sir William Grove but didn’t find serious use until the space programmes of the 1960s. In the last few years, the technology has matured and fuel cells are now being used to power cars and buses, provide heat and electricity for homes and businesses.
Huge environmental and economic benefits
The environmental benefits for the UK are large but the economic benefits are potentially enormous if we play our cards right. The Hydrogen Council, a collective of 18 major car, energy and gas companies including Toyota and Shell has predicted that global sales of hydrogen and fuel cell-related equipment will be a massive $2.5 trillion in 2050. We need to be sure that the UK can capture its fair share of this opportunity.
The sooner we embrace this technology and start using it, the sooner we will reap the environmental benefits and at the same time develop skills and know-how in the design, manufacture and installation of the equipment. If we delay, we will become dependent on technology developed and supplied by other nations. The Hydrogen Hub is an organisation which operates at a local and national level to foster the development and use of hydrogen and fuel cells in the UK. A local focus brings together end users, equipment suppliers and local authorities to share assets and learning, creating economies of scale around specific projects.
The first Hydrogen Hub, established in 2016, has focused on Swindon, with success in developing a local hydrogen fuelling infrastructure and a fleet of fuel cell cars operated by Nationwide Building Society, National Trust, The Science Museum and other businesses based in the town. 2018 has seen the launch of the second Hydrogen Hub, in Oxfordshire, where there is a strong appetite for clean and sustainable transport and energy generation. This is demonstrated by the plan to introduce the world’s first zero-emission zone in the city of Oxford. Projects under consideration include a fuel cell bus fleet, delivery vehicles, refuse trucks and combined heat and power installations at a number of sites.
Nationally, The Hydrogen Hub seeks to drive investment in hydrogen and fuel cell innovation by shaping energy and transportation policy in the UK. It does so by developing costed, evidence-based recommendations for policy change drawing on its interactions with customers and supply chain stakeholders at local level. This process is supported by extensive knowledge in the technical and commercial aspects of hydrogen and fuel cells developed over many years in the industry.
Ultimately the goal is to replicate the Hydrogen Hub model in numerous locations across the UK, creating the infrastructure needed for a larger hydrogen economy. Verne’s vision of a society powered by water is coming in the form of a sustainable, renewable energy system that features hydrogen as a key component. Our challenge is to see this opportunity and develop a national strategy to make it a reality within the shortest time and at the lowest cost. The Hydrogen Hub is focusing on local opportunities to stimulate close collaboration between government, industry and the public to kick-start the transformation.
Article originally appeared in the 15th June edition of the New Statesman.