Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) – How do they work?
Hydrogen is considered the most abundant element on the planet. However, it does not exist on Earth as a gas by itself, but instead, usually makes up part of another component, such as water.
The gas is usually produced using the common method of steam reforming, using natural gas, or by sending an electrical current through the water in a process called electrolysis. Once separated from the other components, it can be used with oxygen in a fuel cell to create electricity, providing an alternative fuel source to power vehicles.
An FCV is like an EV in that they are both powered by an electric motor. However, electricity is stored in a battery in an EV, whereas the FCV produces electricity through a chemical process inside the fuel cell.
The hydrogen then acts as a replacement for petrol or diesel, refuelling in exactly the same time traditional fuel does. This contrasts with EVs, which take considerably longer to recharge.
What does the future hold for FCVs?
Despite the many false starts and the reservations that still surround FCVs, researchers have renewed their interest in hydrogen technology, due to its potential as a pollution-free fuel.
The continued success of other renewable technologies has shown that with some innovation and policy incentives, hydrogen could become a key player in helping build our global clean energy industries.
Indeed, within Northern Ireland, several projects investigating the use of hydrogen as a viable fuel source for transport have begun. The main project involves the Northern Ireland Transport company Translink who has purchased a fleet of hydrogen-powered double-decker buses and partnered with Energia, who owns a wind farm to supply the hydrogen to power the buses.
It appears that hydrogen vehicles are emerging, but perhaps the economies of scale will mean that public transport vehicles are more quickly adopted than private hydrogen vehicles in the shorter term.
Policy Landscape for Hydrogen in Scotland
Policy set out by The Scottish Government shows increasing support and opportunity for hydrogen in Scotland. While it is still early days for hydrogen in Scotland, research projects and guidance from the Government shows there is an interest in hydrogen as a piece of the energy puzzle as we work towards a decarbonised Scotland.
In their 2017 Energy Strategy the Scottish Government presented two scenarios to reach a net carbon neutral Scotland by 2045. One of these scenarios is a hydrogen future, utilizing current natural gas infrastructure and skills to deliver clean heat to homes and businesses in Scotland. There is a recognition that to achieve this vision that significant research, technical feasibility, and costings must be undertaken in Scotland.
Transport policy also offers opportunities for hydrogen deployment in Scotland. The Scottish Government aims to phase out the need for petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032, opening the market to ULEV. Additionally, low emission zones are being introduced in Scotland’s four biggest cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee) which will limit access for the most polluting vehicles.
While this may make electric vehicles attractive to consumers, with one-third of car owners in the UK having no access to off-street parking, for many hydrogen vehicles may be the best option.
Most recently the Government, working alongside Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, has announced the Hydrogen Assessment Project. This project, which will be undertaken by Arup, will assess hydrogen’s role in helping Scotland to achieve the 2045 target of net-zero emissions. The Scottish Government is developing its first hydrogen policy statement, and the work of the Hydrogen Assessment Project will inform it, as well as the Hydrogen Action Plan for Scotland (due later this year).
The Scottish Government’s most recent budget included opportunities for hydrogen in Scotland. Along with continued support for ULEV and low carbon infrastructure funds, the Government announced support for hydrogen and CCUS. In addition, the budget made direct mention of decarbonizing Scotland’s railways, including the development and testing of hydrogen-powered trains.
Is Hydrogen a viable fuel source for the Northern Ireland transport sector?
In July 2017, the UK government made the announcement that the sales of all petrol and diesel-powered vehicles would be phased out and banned by 2040, due to the negative impacts of emissions on both public health and the environment.
But what does this mean for consumers in Northern Ireland, located in regions where there is a huge reliance on private transport? Many developed countries are now working on creating alternative energy sources for transportation to replace fossil fuels.
At present, there are two promising technologies at the forefront of alternative energy; Electric Vehicles (EVs) and Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs). For some time, global car manufacturers have been electrifying selected vehicle models, and whilst the infrastructure for these has its drawbacks, it is more advanced than that of hydrogen, which powers FCVs.
However, with an increasing amount of research and projects, hydrogen is growing in popularity as a viable alternative fuel source to the ongoing fight towards decarbonization and emissions reduction.
Before looking at hydrogen, it is important to look back at the history of Northern Ireland’s Electric Vehicle charging infrastructure. An initial run of EV charging points was installed in 2012, with 40 installed in towns across the country. Another 140 were added a year later and a further investment of £600,000 was made in 2014 to install 100 EV charge points at hospitals, health trusts, libraries, and local council offices. Currently, there are around 350 public charge points available across NI.
One major issue related to EVs surrounds range anxiety. Despite improvements in battery technology, there is still a fear that on a long journey you may run out of power or have to stop for an extended period to recharge. For many, this is where hydrogen could come into play. According to researchers, the range of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles tends to be more economical than EVs.
For instance, Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Nexo, comes with a range of 414 miles and takes five minutes to refill, compared to that of its electric counterparts which can often take up to an hour. However, whilst some car manufacturers, such as Hyundai and Toyota, remain confident that hydrogen technology now represents the future of transport, it is still considered too complicated for mass adoption.
A Land of Hydrogen Opportunities
Scotland is well known as being a world leader in renewable energy technologies and is fast becoming a hotspot for green hydrogen innovation.
The Orkney Islands are well known for turning abundant but constrained renewable energy into hydrogen whilst Aberdeen is building on its oil and gas expertise to transition to a hydrogen economy city.
As the Scottish Government consults on their new Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind Energy, the North Sea is already being investigated for producing large volumes of green hydrogen. The Dolphyn project is looking at deploying 4GW of floating wind early next decade for £12bn to deliver a viable solution for net-zero heating in UK homes.
The project aims to begin with a prototype unit for deployment in Scottish waters using a 2MW turbine from MHI Vestas and a WindFloat platform, already successfully tested off Portugal and designed by Principle Power.
The premise behind producing hydrogen offshore is that independence from the electricity grid can reduce costs further offshore. By producing the hydrogen offshore and piping it ashore, possible utilizing existing natural gas pipelines, and economies of scale, significant savings can be made. Electrical infrastructure such as cables can dominate costs in offshore production.
Offshore Wind Turbine, Liverpool Bay.