Ever dream of driving rally cars through the world’s most exotic locations such as the Amazon rainforest, the deserts of Arabia or the mountains of Himalaya?
What if the vehicle you drove was also kind to the planet? Well, in six months’ time, a new rally championship could make that a reality.
Organisers behind Formula E racing will kick-off the first race of its Extreme E series on the picturesque coastline of Lac Rose in Senegal, known for its pink waters, and not far northeast of Dakar.
They have even described the contest as ‘Star Wars Pod Racing meets Dakar Rally’ and will consist of competitors driving all-electric off-road SUVs across some of the world’s most famous natural wonders to raise awareness of climate change.
And like the history of car racing itself, the level of British involvement is strong.
A fortnight ago, Surrey-based AFC Energy announced the start of a partnership with Extreme E to provide them with zero-emission off-grid hydrogen power and storage systems. The technology will help charge the all-electric SUV fleet during races.
AFC Energy is a prominent developer of hydrogen fuel cell technology, which uses hydrogen derived from water and the sun through electrolysis to create power and has zero greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the only things the fuel cell systems vessels release are water and hot air.
Chief executive Adam Bond said the competition ‘will highlight to a global audience the potential of hydrogen as a fuel to power off-grid generation in an application which has long been the domain of the diesel generator.’
It is the off-grid nature of the technology that Bond posits as one of the crucial advantages. He says that unlike traditional electric batteries, hydrogen fuel cells are logistically better because they are lighter and do not need to be transported back and forth for recharging.
The London-listed firm is also designing a more dense fuel cell that it hopes to bring to market in two years for use on railways and ships.
Hydrogen technology is still too elementary to become ubiquitous. Still, many believe it might not just radically recast the transportation sector, but to power our homes and decarbonise whole industries.
A global body of business leaders from multinational giants like BP, Siemens, and hydrogen-powered lorry designer Hyundai, belong to the Hydrogen Council, an initiative set up in 2017 to aid the development of the hydrogen economy.
In the same year it was inaugurated, the group released a report detailing how such an industry economy could possibly create $2.5trillion of business and over 30 million jobs by 2050.
It described hydrogen as ‘a central pillar of the energy transformation’ that could contribute to one-fifth of the reduction in carbon emissions that are needed for the planet to achieve the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Their vision has now been taken up by the European Commission, which launched a ‘Hydrogen Strategy’ earlier this month. It said the substance was a ‘key building block’ for helping the EU become a zero-pollution economy by mid-century.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a fan as well. As Mayor of London, he purchased 12 hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirais, with four going to Transport for London to assist it with engineering and maintenance work.
The idea of using hydrogen to spur innovation is nothing new either. Water was first electrolysed in the same year as the French Revolution, and in England in 1800.
Cornishman Humphrey Davy then discovered the concept of the the fuel cell year after, but it was almost four decades until a Welshman, Sir William Grove, produced electrical energy by combining hydrogen with oxygen to create the first fuel cell.
Jules Verne’s 1874 novel The Mysterious Island features the character Cyrus Harding telling the sailor Pencroft: ‘I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable.’
Harding’s vision literally crashed in the interwar years though when the hydrogen-fuelled Hindenburg airship memorably burst into flames soon after attempting to dock in New Jersey.
Modern hydrogen tanks are usually lined with Kevlar, yet the image of the Hindenburg is still powerful enough to scare consumers. The element’s flammability has been a significant worry for train company Porterbrook, which is developing Britain’s first hydrogen train – the Hydroflex.
Made in conjunction with the University of Birmingham, the train’s hydrogen is stored in four secure high-pressure tanks inside a carriage. Should that help to enhance hydrogen’s reputation for safety, train travel could be revolutionised.
A railway network solely of hydrogen trains could run on both electrified and conventional lines, eliminating the need for electrification, which can cost up to £1million a kilometre, and gas-guzzling diesel trains. They would be quieter too.
Long-distance journeys may not yet be feasible on such trains, but on a small island like Britain, that could be an unintentional trump card.
The sector received a further boost last week when Alstom and Eversholt Rail announced a further £1million investment in its Breeze train, which are being built in Widnes, Cheshire.
On the same day, the UK government declared that part of a £139million funding package would go to help heavy industry transition from natural gas to clean hydrogen power.
Investment is all well and good, but Christopher Jackson, chairman of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, and the CEO of hydrogen developer Protium, thinks the government needs to do the following actions to expand the sector:
Firstly, they should set out a ‘clear strategic direction’ for how hydrogen and fuel cells could be used to help achieve Net-Zero.
There should also be ambitious targets for installing green hydrogen systems and a timeline by which the transition from unabated natural gas towards low carbon hydrogen is completed.
‘We suggest up to 10GW of green electrolysis is possible and a target worthy of a country that intends to lead the world on climate mitigation at COP 26,’ he states.
Finally, Jackson wants public authorities to have procurement policies that favour green technologies like fuel cells and hydrogen rather than traditional energy sources.
Public administrations are indeed becoming more responsive to renewable energy, including hydrogen. However, many are deeply sceptical of the element’s eco-friendly credentials.
Most hydrogen sold in the UK today is made by converting fuels like gas and coal. If the process is to be carbon-neutral, then companies have to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment, and that makes the end product more expensive.
Electrolysis is a much greener alternative, but creating ‘renewable hydrogen’ is even costlier. According to the EU, fossil-based hydrogen is worth around 1.5 €/kg and about two €/kg with CCS. With green hydrogen though, the cost is 2.5-5.5 €/kg.
Tom Baxter, a senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering at the University of Aberdeen, has alternatively suggested making homes more energy efficient with existing technologies like insulation and heat pumps.
‘I believe that hydrogen has a limited role in decarbonisation,’ he wrote last week, adding ‘that businesses with a vested interest in promoting hydrogen are doing so at the expense of British consumers.’
It probably helps little that some of the firms touting hydrogen are giant polluters. Just look at some of the names belonging to the Hydrogen Council: Aramco, Shell, Chinese oil and gas firm Sinopec, and numerous carmakers like Daimler and Honda.
Solar and wind power seem safer bets at this time, especially as their prices have now dipped below coal, and will sink lower than gas within a few years.
Having said that, the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine through. Hydrogen could therefore act as a backup fuel. Or, when there’s excess wind and solar power, electrolysers can convert that into hydrogen
Phil Caldwell, the CEO of electrochemical firm Ceres, a developer in next-generation solid oxide fuel cell technology, says the company does not see hydrogen as a competitor with other renewables energy sources, but complementary to them.
‘Hydrogen is a way to store electricity in a world of abundant cheap renewables, while crucially providing grid balancing.’
Even if the element never becomes as grand as its proponents’ desire, there is a place for the world’s most abundant element in the planet’s zero-carbon future.
Like solar and wind, hydrogen fuel cells have gotten cheaper, smaller and more efficient, and there are plenty of companies with deep pockets who could use their wealth to push hydrogen into the mainstream.
If governments can also provide the necessary backing for R&D and help build the infrastructure which is sorely lacking, the future could well resemble that envisaged by Cyrus Harding: ‘I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.’
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