Is the automotive industry waking up to hydrogen’s potential?

24 May 2021

With electric propulsion becoming mainstream, attention is moving to hydrogen as an alternative. Autovista Group Daily Brief editor Phil Curry examines whether the automotive industry could become a different two-fuel market.

As battery-electric technology moves increasingly into the mainstream, manufacturers and suppliers are exploring further options. Hydrogen combines the zero-emission benefits of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) with the refuelling-time practicality of internal combustion engines (ICE). Hydrogen is also the most abundant element in the universe, so it will never run out, unlike fossil fuels.

Yet, there are challenges. While much is made of the need to improve the electrically-chargeable vehicle (EV) infrastructure in Europe, the hydrogen infrastructure is almost non-existent. There are also question marks over how sustainable the production process for hydrogen fuel is. But here, the automotive industry can benefit from other markets, for example, the energy sector is exploring how to produce hydrogen for power generation. Tin addition, the aviation and rail industries are looking at the fuel as an alternative to current options.

Automotive awareness

Hydrogen is not a new fuel for the automotive industry. Asian carmakers have been developing propulsion technology based around it for a number of years. Both Toyota and Hyundai have models on the market, with the former launching a second-generation version of its Mirai fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) later this year.

The need for manufacturers to develop more zero-carbon technology has also led to some European companies investigating the potential of hydrogen. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced earlier this year that it is planning to take the Jaguar brand electric-only by 2025. As part of this announcement, it added that testing of FCEV technology would begin on UK roads in the next 12 months.

JLR appointed a head of hydrogen and fuel-cells in March 2019. In October of that year, its head of engineering, Nick Rogers, suggested that the fuel would be particularly suited to SUVs rather than batteries, as long as it was created sustainably.

‘The larger the vehicle, the larger the aero challenge. If you're not careful, you end up with such big batteries, and you make the vehicles so heavy that as you race down the autobahn, the range disappears,’ he commented.

BMW too, is looking at hydrogen as a potential fuel of the future. The carmaker announced last year that it would create a limited run of the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT model, which would show how the company envisions the hydrogen drivetrain. In its first-quarter financial reporting, chairman of the board of management, Oliver Zipse,  announced that the carmaker would unveil a BMW X5 with a fuel-cell drive next year.

This vision, however, is not shared by some. While it is pursuing the technology for the logistics sector, Daimler stated last year it was cancelling plans for production of its hydrogen-powered GLC.

‘The GLC car project is nearly done. As we speak, the last GLC fuel cells will be produced and handed over to customers. At the moment, we don't plan another car,’ Daimler Trucks CEO Martin Daum said last year. ‘We have all the possibilities to come back anytime if there is a market and a necessity,’ he said.

Taking to Twitter recently Volkswagen Group (VW) CEO Herbert Diess also voiced his hesitancy at the development of hydrogen technology, stating it is not proven to be a climate solution. However, given the vast sums his company is investing in electrification, this stance should come as no great shock.

Production goals

There are three types of hydrogen: grey, blue, and green. Grey and blue hydrogen are produced using fossil fuels, but blue-hydrogen production captures the carbon emissions and either stores them or uses them in other industrial processes. Green hydrogen is created using 100% renewable-energy sources.

While green hydrogen is the ultimate goal, blue hydrogen is a worthwhile stepping stone. In March, BP announced plans to produce blue hydrogen in the UK. The proposed development, H2Teesside, would be a significant step in developing ‎BP’s hydrogen business and contribute to the UK government’s target of developing 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030. 

The project would capture, and send for storage, up to two million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to capturing the emissions from the heating of one million UK households.

‘Clean hydrogen is an essential complement to electrification on the path to net-zero,’ commented Dev Sanyal, BP’s executive vice president of gas and low-carbon energy. ‘Blue hydrogen, integrated with carbon capture and storage, can provide the scale and reliability needed by industrial processes. It can also play an essential role in decarbonising hard-to-electrify industries and driving down the cost of the energy transition.’

Challenges ahead

‘I am convinced hydrogen technology will gain traction – and I am committed to making Bavaria a high-tech location for hydrogen technology. This is a constructive way of responding to the climate debate,’ stated Hubert Aiwanger, deputy minister-president of Bavaria and the state’s minister for Economic Affairs, Regional Development and Energy, on a recent visit to a BMW component plant in Landshut, Lower Bavaria. ‘The focus now is on building a hydrogen infrastructure at a national and international level, from production to application.’

Aiwanger’s comment about infrastructure is just one of the perceived barriers to adoption for hydrogen propulsion, the others being the aforementioned sustainability of production, and safety.

When it comes to infrastructure, the issue is much like that in which EV technology found itself some time ago. It is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, where vehicle demand drives infrastructure development, but demand cannot grow if there is no infrastructure to support it.

However, energy companies are looking at the situation. Alongside BP, Shell is also investigating hydrogen and has on-site production in place at a small number of its refuelling stations around Europe.

The safety of hydrogen is also questioned. Like petrol, it is combustible but may be the safer of the two.

‘Hydrogen is not toxic, it will dissipate virtually immediately, and if it is to burn, it does so with no radiant heat so it will not set fire to other things around it while burning itself out very quickly,’ commented Jon Hunt, manager of alternative fuels at Toyota GB. ‘If you were to have an accident with the vehicle, and hydrogen was to escape, bearing in mind that the tanks themselves are extremely robust, more so than an ordinary fuel tank which would easily spill the fuel, the control systems would release hydrogen in small amounts, in a concentration below flammability levels.

‘Even if this were to fail, a tank containing around five kilos of gas would burn itself out in less than a minute. If you were to have the same sort of fire in any fossil-fuel vehicle, the fire would last quite a lot longer, burn with more intensity and would likely set fire to other things as well. For an EV, a battery fire could last days.’

The automotive industry has survived for decades as a two-fuel society. Petrol was seen as the best option for local journeys, while diesel was ideal for longer trips and logistics. As the market moves to a zero-carbon future, there is no reason why it cannot embrace another two-fuel society. Electric propulsion is perfect for those who drive around urban areas and short distances, while hydrogen offers the practicality needed for those motorway miles and long-distance travels.