Inside the global clean energy transition
Technology / Hydrogen

Hydrogen in transport: Game changer or fairy tale?

After years of hype, "freedom fuel" has yet to prove itself as a transport solution.

In the early 2000s, as fears over terrorism and peak oil prompted renewed concern over oil dependence, a new technology was touted as the solution to climate and energy security concerns.

“I ask you to take a crucial step and protect our environment in ways that generations before us could not have imagined,” then-president George W Bush implored the US Congress in his 2003 State of the Union speech. He proposed a $1.2bn “freedom fuel” initiative to develop this transport holy grail: “A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car, producing only water, not exhaust fumes.”

Two decades later very little has come from these grand visions for cars. There are almost no hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road today, and those that exist are mostly demonstration vehicles. “A cynic might say that hydrogen is, and will always remain, the future,” William Todts, executive director of campaign group Transport & Environment, recently quipped.

However, the lack of progress isn’t necessarily reflective of hydrogen’s potential, Todts added. It could just be that we have been looking for hydrogen success in all the wrong places. Though Bush and others were focused on using it as a fuel to power electric cars, it is increasingly looking like the greatest transport potential will be in shipping, commercial vehicles and – possibly – in aviation.

A man fills his tank at the inauguration of a hydrogen filling station in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images)

The enthusiasm for hydrogen as the silver bullet in the climate fight is easy to understand. It can be produced simply through the electrolysis of water or as a by-product from fossil fuel or renewable energy production, producing both electricity and heat. It can be produced and used without emitting CO2, and carries three times as much energy as petrol, diesel or jet fuel – but it also has big disadvantages that have stymied its development. It can be extracted from natural gas, in a process which does cause carbon emissions, which makes climate campaigners suspicious it is being used as an excuse to prolong its use. It can be dangerous, with massive compression needed to store it. And the fuel cells that use it to generate power are complex pieces of machinery that require considerable maintenance.

These disadvantages saw hydrogen fade from the headlines for a while, but it has again captured the imagination of policymakers – most notably in Europe this time. The European Commission has published an EU hydrogen strategy. EU vice-president for the Green Deal Frans Timmermans has said he sees a “pivotal role” for hydrogen in meeting the EU’s goal of completely decarbonising by 2050. Its use in transport has been one focus of these discussions.

“It is the application that is easiest to understand,” says Sabrine Skiker from industry association Hydrogen Europe. “If you look at national plans, mobility is the main focus. But let’s wait until we have an EU mobility road map [due in the coming months]. What we have now is a hydrogen strategy covering all sectors.”

Cars

Electric vehicle (EV) sales have tripled this year, says a report released this week by T&E, thanks to new average fleet CO2 limits that kicked in on 1 January. However, the 130 commercial passenger car models now on sale in Europe use batteries rather than hydrogen fuel cells to power their motors.

Even the hydrogen industry is under no illusions that hydrogen is an obvious first choice for passenger vehicles.

“For cars, let’s be blunt, we see manufacturers looking into other low-emission technologies first, and that is to quickly comply with CO2 targets,” says Skiker. “If you look at the EU market, we see a shift from the passenger car segment to the commercial vehicle segment.”

She adds: “But we don’t think there will be one technology winning this [for cars]. It will have to be a mix of battery EVs and hydrogen-powered vehicles. We think once there will be an increase in volume, people will realise you will need fuel cell vehicles for more flexibility – for range and for high speed.”

However, T&E electricity & energy manager Geert De Cock thinks this view is outdated and sees no future for hydrogen passenger cars.

“We see so many new battery models coming to the market,” he says. “A push for fuel cell cars now would be too little too late. The train has left the station.”

Paul Greening, director for emissions and fuels at European automotive industry association ACEA, says there is still interest in hydrogen vehicles, but suggests passenger cars are not the primary focus.

“Many of our manufacturers are looking very actively at the possibility of hydrogen in combustion engines as well as in fuel cells,” he said at a recent virtual event. “In the heavy-duty sector, that is an alternative that is real and does exist – but the infrastructure will need to keep pace because presently there are very few refuelling stations in Europe.”

Trucks

Indeed, because of challenges around refuelling, hydrogen may be much better suited for commercial vehicles that travel specific pre-determined routes. Hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is complicated to install and can be dangerous.

“Hydrogen is quite a challenging fuel to work with,” said director-general of industry association Fuels Europe John Cooper at the virtual event. “To get energy density, you need extreme pressure. Vehicles that run on hydrogen typically run on 700 or 800 bar storage. Existing gaseous fuel vehicles on the road like Autogas (liquid petroleum gas) run at about four bar. So the technology needs a lot of risk management. It is not very suitable as a retail technology.”

However, trucks could better handle this complexity.

“There is a consensus among stakeholders that hydrogen will play a key role in long-haul trucking,” says Skiker. A number of automakers, including Peugeot, Hyundai and VW, are investing in hydrogen-powered trucks. For these, electric batteries have limitations because of their weight. A 40-tonne (t) battery vehicle would need a battery weighing 4t, she says. “To have a similar payload and range and flexibility as now, hydrogen is the way forward.” While a few manufacturers are looking into running hydrogen directly in a combustion engine, most right now are looking at hydrogen in fuel cells, adds Skiker.

The advantage with trucks is that charging infrastructure would only be needed at the departure and destination points. A truck delivering groceries would charge fully at the depot, and then could recharge while making deliveries at the grocery store.

However, not all trucks would be well-suited.

“For trucks we divide into two segments: the below 16t [urban deliveries] and the above 16t [motorway lorries],” says De Cock. “We see that a lot of the truck manufacturers are coming to market with battery electric trucks under 300–400km of range, they are already available on the market in a way that fuel cell trucks aren’t. That is the lighter truck segment that drive from a central depot to their destination and back.”

According to a report from T&E, trucks with 200–300km of range can cover most of the EU’s urban and regional delivery requirements. In the EU, 90% of road freight trips are for distances below 300km, and they account for almost half (47%) of road freight kilometres travelled.

“For the heavy-duty trucks that drive from Seville to Oslo, there, the race is open,” says De Cock. “It could be hydrogen fuel cell, or it could be the Tesla semi. We don’t claim to know. We want a zero-emission truck mandate that forces manufacturers to start producing these vehicles, and then we will see what technology wins out in the end.”

Mark Sutcliffe, Renault’s senior vice-president for its Alliance LCV business unit, said at a recent ACEA-Hydrogen Europe event that his company is taking a keen interest in hydrogen for both long-haul and short-haul deliveries.

“Given future key trends, urban logistics vehicles will need to be zero-emission,” he said. “Clearly, they need to be practical, flexible, quiet, efficient and cost-effective, and this is where hydrogen can play a huge part in the solution. I strongly believe that a fuel cell vehicle as range extender will produce a virtuous circle for urban logistics.”

Hyundai is expected to deliver 1,600 hydrogen trucks to the Swiss market by 2025. H2Haul, a project co-financed by the EU’s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, aims to develop and deploy 16 zero-emission fuel cell trucks at four sites, starting in 2023. It is also working to install new high-capacity hydrogen refuelling stations. The coach segment has also attracted interest. While no major projects in this area have yet been announced, some are expected in the next year.

Ships

Shipping is another area where hydrogen seems to have great potential, says Hydrogen Europe’s maritime aviation and ports policy manager, Ludovic Laffineur.

“There are projects being launched,” he says. “The Port of Antwerp is planning to build a tug boat running on methanol. You can have smaller ships running on internal combustion engines with e-fuels. Ships can run on ammonia as well. There are so many different possibilities for ships.”

While longer journeys by massive cargo ships and huge ocean liners will ultimately require liquid hydrogen and liquid ammonia produced with zero-emission electricity, battery-powered ships offer the most “efficient and immediate solution to decarbonise short sea voyages”, at least in the EU, says T&E. And fully electric and electric-hybrid vessels already operate in several countries, including Norway and Canada, with others exploring battery power as a cleaner solution for short-sea ferries, inland navigation vessels and small boats.

As trucks stop at depots and delivery points, the fact ships only dock at ports means the necessary large infrastructure and charging facilities can be built at these points. However, the work needed to switch the ships over to run on hydrogen is as significant as the potential. The engine of the ships would have to be changed, and hydrogen infrastructure would have to be built at ports – as well as the pipes bringing the hydrogen to the ports.

“In our view, hydrogen and ammonia will be definitely be the go-to technology for long-distance shipping, so we will need fuel cells on board that can use either hydrogen or ammonia,” says De Cock. “We think the best way to get there is an operational CO2 standard that rewards ship owners for investing in efficiency and in changing the propulsion technology towards fuel cells.”

Those changes are some way off, however. In the short term, De Cock says the better thing to focus on is efficiency improvements like slow steaming and hull design.

“Ships stay a very long time in operation, but they get refurbished every five years or so, and so there is a possibility to maybe move away from combustion engines to fuel cells over time,” he notes.

For this vision to work, it will be essential to get the infrastructure in place to bring hydrogen to ports, he says.

Planes

Of all the transport applications, hydrogen in airplanes remains the most elusive.

“On aviation, to be honest, there are interesting developments, but it is going quite slow,” says Laffineur. “If you compare it to shipping, aviation is quite long-term, at least for big commercial flights. There are some interesting projects for really smart planes running on fuel cells. Airbus has launched plans to have big planes running on hydrogen by 2035. That is interesting for us of course, it brings a lot of attention, but in the end it’s more [about] e-kerosene and blending of fuels.”

De Cock agrees. “It will be a long time before we see hydrogen or battery electric airplanes,” he says. “I don’t see any battery electric transatlantic flights any time soon. It is very clear we are going to have to continue to rely on the jet engine to power planes. But already work is under way to get up to 50% of e-kerosene in these jet engines. Synthetic hydrocarbons like e-kerosene are another option, where you start with hydrogen and add a carbon element to it.”

Of course, in all these applications, the climate benefit will be greatest only if green hydrogen, produced using renewable electricity, is used. While climate campaigners think hydrogen has great potential for trucking and shipping, and possibly aviation in the long term, they want to make sure that this promise isn’t used as an excuse to build infrastructure for hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. T&E would like to see any mention of hydrogen in upcoming EU mobility strategies specify that the hydrogen should only be green.

“If you use hydrogen, the losses are enormous if you start converting electricity into other energy carriers,” says De Cock. “Because of the enormous inefficiencies involved, you should target hydrogen and e-kerosene only in modes of transport where you have no alternative. For us, that is mainly aviation and shipping.”

President Bush’s dream of futuristic cars powered by “freedom fuel” may not come to pass; however, hydrogen may yet transform trucking and shipping. As the more realistic uses of hydrogen in transport become clear, policymakers will need to make sure infrastructure is keeping up.