How hydrogen could play into the transport fuel mix in the future

The prospect of hydrogen power emerging as a future transport fuel is tantalising at a time when the world is seeking alternatives to combustion engines. But it is not a new proposition. As far back as 1966, General Motors built a vehicle powered by hydrogen, the Chevrolet Electrovan. This was during the 1960s space race, in which fuel cells played a starring role powering the Moon missions. The Electrovan had proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, a range of 250km between hazardous refills and a top speed of 40km/h. Yet only one was built, as the project was seen as too costly. It was cancelled and the Electrovan ended up in a museum.

More than half a century later, hydrogen is still being talked of as the clean energy technology of the future, and fuel for transport. But this time, there is a bigger political will to support them.

Last September, EU energy ministers agreed to pool efforts to increase the use of hydrogen in transport. More than €100 million in EU funding has already been channelled through the public-private partnership Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), to 30 projects using hydrogen, including the H2FUTURE experimental hydrogen production facility currently being built in Linz, Austria. Meanwhile, Germany has launched the world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger trains, replacing two diesel-fired trains on a 100 km line in Lower Saxony.

Last November, the European Commission’s long-term decarbonization strategy said hydrogen could improve the efficiency of the energy system by creating synergies between different sectors. And in June, G20 Energy Ministers meeting in Karuizawa in Japan were presented with an International Energy Agency (IEA) study on the global state of play of clean hydrogen, along with recommendations for practical next steps.

Hydrogen’s supporters point out the wondrous potential of the fuel. The element is the most abundant in the universe. It is plentiful, versatile and is already widely used across industry. Crucially, it is clean: hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles emit only water from their tailpipes. Green hydrogen – made from renewable electricity – is hailed as Holy Grail by clean energy advocates.

Battery investment remains the focus

Hydrogen’s strongest advocates are Japan and South Korea, countries reliant on energy imports. Japan’s Toyota and Honda, and Korea’s Hyundai have developed hydrogen vehicles, which take less time to refuel than the recharging of battery electric cars.

However, European carmakers are more cautious. While Germany’s Daimler and France’s PSA Group have programmes, they are modest compared to their electric battery investments. Indeed, hydrogen is struggling to compete with electric vehicles, which are developed much faster in terms of market readiness with increasing ranges, faster recharging times and falling costs.

Lacking Infrastructure

Hydrogen also has its downsides. Hydrogen fuel is currently made almost entirely from fossil fuels, with significant carbon emissions associated to it – ‘green’ hydrogen is still a long way off.

Perhaps most critically, the infrastructure needed for the hydrogen power supply chain does not exist yet. There are only a handful of refuelling stations for hydrogen cars in Europe – 172, according to the International Energy Agency – echoing the recharging issues facing electric and hybrid vehicles a decade ago.

Half a century on from the GM Electrovan, hydrogen today faces familiar obstacles: the technology is still being perfected, and the take-up is slow. But it has come a long, long way, and the cost of key components like fuel cells and electrolysers have come down to an affordable level. It may still take time, but hydrogen’s potential is there to be part of the transport energy mix in a low-carbon world.