Hydrogen cars: the technology targeting a fuel-cell future

by Jesse Crosse, Autocar UK 14 Oct 2020

Hydrogen has been touted as the ideal zero-carbon fuel for a couple of decades now, yet it has so far failed to catch on. However, in January of this year, the Hydrogen Council, an organisation comprising 92 major companies, claimed that the 2020s will be “the decade of hydrogen”.

Dr David Hart, visiting professor at the Imperial College Centre for Environmental Policy and head of the consultancy e4Tech, agrees, saying: “We’re seeing an enormous amount of serious interest in hydrogen particularly, and fuel cells too.”

Since the late 1990s, there has been huge investment in this technology by car makers, but only Honda, Hyundai and Toyota make fuel cell cars that you can buy today, and only the latter two offer them in Britain. Large-scale introduction has been hampered not so much by the tech but by the difficulty and cost of establishing a filling station network.

That’s about to change, though, thanks to international plans for hydrogen to become a major component of energy systems across the board. Not just for cars but also for domestic and industrial heating and power, for fuelling trucks, trains and ships and, perhaps most importantly, for storing and stockpiling surplus electrical energy.

Last year, the UK became the first country to legislate for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a step up from the previous law calling for an 80% reduction over 1990 levels.

This made a big difference, explains Toyota GB’s manager for alternative fuels, John Hunt: “The 80% allowed all the difficult things to be parked and hidden in the 20% as things you didn’t have to do. Once net-zero was put on the table, people had to rethink, and ‘difficult to do’ has come to the front of mind.”

One of those things is hydrogen. Hunt says, in its July Future Energy Scenarios report, “National Grid makes it clear that hydrogen is essential; there’s no question at all.”

The report says that at least 190TWh of energy per year will be needed for producing hydrogen to achieve net-zero and highlights its value for storing energy to cope with peaks and troughs in electricity generation (called grid balancing). During the past decade, 8.7TWh of wind power – equivalent to the capacity of 136 million Kia e-Niro 64kWh batteries – went unused, at a cost of £649 million. That’s because there’s currently no way of storing vast amounts of off-peak electricity.

Hunt is confident the UK has huge potential for harnessing wind power to produce zero-carbon hydrogen. “The UK has some of the most accessible and windiest conditions in the world,” he explains. “The opportunity for the UK to establish close offshore farms producing hydrogen from seawater, then export it to land by pipe or ship, is huge. With the combination of spent oil and gas fields and rigs in place, using those platforms for producing hydrogen on-site is perfectly feasible.”