Is the hydrogen tech 'revolution' hope or hype?

BBC Technology 01 Jul 2020 03:04
By Roger Harrabin BBC environment analyst

In his speech on the planned economic recovery, the prime minister said hydrogen technology is an area where the UK leads the world. He hopes it’ll create clean jobs in the future. But is the hydrogen revolution hope or hype?

The digger with the long-toothed bucket bites into a pile of stones, tilts up and flexes its sturdy mechanical arm.

It swivels, extends the arm and dumps its load on the harsh ground of a Staffordshire quarry.

It’s a beast of a machine and from the front it looks like a normal excavator.

But from the back you can see its tank full of dirty diesel has been replaced with a hydrogen fuel cell.

The excavator is the latest in a generation of vehicles powered by the lightest element on Earth.

The compendium of vehicles powered by hydrogen now stretches from diggers to micro-taxis, trucks, boats, vans, single-deck and now double-decker buses – and even small planes.

Talking about a revolution

Back in the early 2000s, backers of hydrogen thought it would dominate the clean automobile market.

Firstly, hydrogen power needed a new infrastructure, whereas rival battery cars could be charged off the near-ubiquitous electricity grid.

Image copyright Hyundai

Take our large mechanical digger, a prototype from JCB. It has a little battery-powered cousin – small enough to squeeze through a doorway and work in a building.

Lorries fall into the same category as diggers – sometimes the battery would be as heavy as the payload.

The same applies to buses, and the Bamford family, which owns JCB, says it has orders for 80 double-deck buses from its Wrightbus factory at Ballymena in Northern Ireland.

Buses could use hydrogen stored at depots in Kevlar-lined tanks for safety.

Taking off

There is – forgive the pun – a head of steam building over hydrogen. Germany is racing ahead with a network of filling stations and a hydrogen train. It’s investing E7bn in a bid to dominate the hydrogen market.

The UK government also intends to announce a hydrogen strategy before the Parliament closes for the summer, as part of its economic recovery package.

Indeed, within weeks from now, Britain’s first hydrogen train – developed by Birmingham University - will be tested on regular tracks.

So it looks as though hydrogen has finally made it. But not so fast… because it’s by no means trouble-free.

The problem can be tackled by capturing the CO2 at a hydrogen production hub, then burying it with carbon capture and storage. But that will drive the cost up further.

Fool cells?

But hydrogen-lovers believe the future electricity grid will produce so much cheap off-peak power that we’ll need to find other uses for it. And they hope to see the cost of fuel cells plummet following the example of offshore wind.

Certainly, recent events have favoured the advance of hydrogen. When the UK had a target of 80% carbon cuts by 2050, that left leeway for polluting forms of fuel to take up the remaining 20% of the carbon “budget”.

Trials are already underway using hydrogen blended into natural gas at Keele University.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

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UKJCBEU CommissionDouble deckersBamford
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