Climate change is receiving more attention now than ever. Consequently, companies and governments all over the world have been looking for more and more ways to continue progressing, all while staying eco-friendly.
Generally, when thinking about renewable energy people will picture wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars. However, with recent advances in technology, it looks like hydrogen could be as much of a player in our new sustainable world, if not a bigger one.
Having said this, we live with electricity and all of its benefits around us, but the same can't really be said for hydrogen - just yet. This is why we reached out to two experts in the industry: Jon Hunt, who's working on the new hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai, as well as Dr Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power, a company providing the means to harness hydrogen.
Dr Graham Cooley
CEO of ITM Power:
Getting sustainable fuel from water seems almost too good to be true. How would you explain the process to the average joe?
"The process of generating hydrogen is relatively simple, using one of our Electrolyser’s. Our products take in water and use renewable electricity to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The oxygen is vented into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen is then stored ready to be used."
The drawbacks of batteries are cost and weight. What barriers do you see having to be overcome to make hydrogen fuel cells the fuel of choice?
"Currently, the main drawback Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) have is the expensive purchase price. They’re currently priced at an executive market however, FCEV manufactures in the past couple of years have announced their plans to mass-produce FCEV in the attempt to position the vehicles better in the market."
There’s been speculation that Jeff Bezos is investing in hydrogen for his Amazon fleet, whilst Elon Musk is obviously invested in electricity. Do you think both magnates can be right?
"Electricity and hydrogen shouldn’t be seen as competitors, because together they can help meet the UK’s carbon-neutral objectives.
There is a market for both Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) and FCEV. Hydrogen would be better suited for heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks, buses, trains and planes. As well as for those who frequently drive long-distance"
Airbus has expressed an intent to develop hydrogen-fuelled planes by 2035 – Does that sound realistic to you?
"Many aviation companies are looking at hydrogen as a fuel, ZeroAvia is one of the fastest moving developers. When the planes are ready we are ready to refuel them."
In your opinion, what does ‘good’ look like for hydrogen in 1 year, 5 years and again in 10?
"The EU targets are 6GW of electrolysis by 2024 and 40GW by 2030, I believe the industry will meet those targets
What would say to people who have concerns regarding the safety of hydrogen?
"Hydrogen is the safest fuel because it’s the lightest element; if it leaks its gone in seconds. Compare that with being soaked in petrol."
Manager, Alternative Fuels at Toyota:
It's great to hear that companies such as Toyota are involved in developing alternative, sustainable fuels for vehicles. When did this start?
Developing more reliable sustainable and cost-effective products is a continuous process. The potential for electrification has been recognised by Toyota from the start of the company in 1936. It was in the 1960s that Toyota started its first dedicated electrification programmes, they've been evolving ever since. It can deliver high performance, quiet smooth operation and zero tailpipe emissions but the practical constraints of current battery technology do restrict the full benefits of battery electrification.
The formal mass production and sales of electrified vehicles started at Toyota before any other manufacturer in 1997, with the Prius. Toyota decided that the best route to transition users was the development of hybrid systems which would not compromise the vehicle user experience. These have all the components of a fully electric vehicle but differ in how and where the electricity is generated.
In a hybrid the primary energy is transferred to the vehicle as petrol, in a fuel cell car, it is transferred in hydrogen and for a battery-electric vehicle, a large battery stores electricity produced elsewhere to drive the electric motor. In a hybrid, the electricity is generated onboard primarily from regenerative braking that collects braking energy that would otherwise be lost. A small battery with minimum resource impact is used as a buffer for storing excess energy. This is the same powertrain that is in the fuel cell car where the electricity is generated from hydrogen or by regenerative braking.
Alongside the hybrid powertrain programme, the specific fuel cell programme at Toyota started in 1992, this was to develop the fuel cell stack, storage and associated requirements. It was in this programmes that Toyota developed it’s own durable and powerful fuel stacks (at launch the world’s highest power density with no fixed life and almost 100% recyclable) and crucially the type 4 carbon fibre hydrogen storage tanks that are now industry standard. These tanks have enabled safe, lightweight, low cost and long term high-pressure storage of hydrogen delivering a long-range compact design suitable for smaller vehicles.
Will these vehicles be affordable and available for the typical person?
Customer requirement will dictate the technology that best suits their needs but FCEV is at a very early stage of commercial introduction with the size, cost and performance of components optimised for initial introduction which suits larger premium vehicles for the time being but there is no limitation on how they can be scaled and incorporated.
Scale will bring cost reduction and we expect parity pricing around the middle of the decade. However, this should not be viewed in isolation.
The biggest impact for reducing per vehicle emissions is in the commercial vehicle sectors and consequently, the highest benefit for scaling hydrogen production and therefore driving down hydrogen cost comes from the use in these sectors. Passenger cars are the most versatile and best opportunity to scale fuel cell production and use and the associated electric drive train technology, in this case, passenger car development will drive down the component cost for all applications. ( Note for example the fuel cell in the Mirai is identical to the one Toyota Sora or Caetano Bus and both maritime and rail applications being developed).
Therefore in terms of vehicle introduction at scale passenger car development will come first and be more widely adopted leading to body style diversification, bus use will expand now followed by heavier commercial vehicles and rail.
What does the future timeline look like to Toyota in terms of bringing hydrogen technology to market in the UK, and internationally?
There is no single solution to meet all mobility needs but Toyota considers Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles to be the ultimate environmentally friendly solution for sustainable mobility. This is not only due their zero tailpipe emissions but also in the material use, reuse and recycling as well as in terms of the production of hydrogen used to power them. They will not only meet the expectations from society anywhere across the globe for convenient and practical solutions to all transport needs but will also complement the growth in the use of hydrogen in other sectors.
The role of hydrogen in energy storage and distribution to underpin the move to renewable sustainable energy for any heat, power or industrial feedstock purposes will grow.
The move to hydrogen is a systemic change that crosses many sectors at different levels of maturity including energy and transport, it, therefore, requires a long term, structured and co-ordinated approach to help realise a hydrogen-based society. This is fully recognised by Toyota which is at the forefront of the efforts to develop a hydrogen-based approach including popularising FCEV’s. This requires a transitional approach and importantly does not exclude other technologies where they may be appropriate.
There is a clear understanding that this transition will take time and the first objective has been to develop the technology to allow commercial sales that will grow awareness and acceptance of fuel cell technology. It is important that the technical challenges and development period for the vehicles and other sectors is understood. With this in mind the period 2015 (from the launch of Gen 1 Mirai) to around 2025 is the period when the technology will be seeding the market, creating awareness, demonstrating its capability in vehicles, supporting infrastructure and seeing the first commercial applications in wider sectors – bus, train, truck etc. 2025 – 2030 should see product expansion and cost reduction and 2030 onwards rapid expansion.
With the challenge of emissions reduction and energy resilience across the globe most industrial sectors, energy production and distribution companies and governments have begun to understand and start working on hydrogen deployment strategies the UK has had good academic and some industrial strength in these sectors but now risks being overtaken due to the lack of a long term strategy.