Niche markets are making a big impact in the development of a hydrogen economy, according to Stewart Dow, packaged energy manager at BOC.
Hydrogen is a fantastic molecule. It is the third most abundant element on the Earth’s surface and found in all organic matter. It is light – fourteen times lighter than air – so it diffuses immediately if released into the atmosphere. For those countries planning their future energy supply, non-toxic and non-polluting hydrogen is a key consideration.
But despite its credentials, finding a way to utilise hydrogen is not that easy. The big players in the hydrogen economy – Japan, the US and Germany – have all taken a very similar approach. Over the past decade, they have been working with industry to develop a hydrogen economy around the automotive market and have achieved some success in gaining commercial and public interest.
In Germany, for example, automotive manufacturer Daimler and the Linde Group have announced their intention to open twenty new hydrogen filling stations over the next three years. This will involve tens of millions of euros and triple the number of public refuelling stations in the country. With existing hydrogen projects such as H2-Mobility and the Clean Energy Partnership already underway, automotive manufacturers in Germany are quickly moving towards their goal of introducing hydrogen vehicles by 2015.
Similarly in Japan, the government announced plans early this year for a co-ordinated push towards the introduction of fuel cell vehicles. This involved major car manufacturers (including Honda, Toyota and Nissan) and 10 hydrogen suppliers, who issued a joint statement at the Japanese Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry promising to introduce mass production fuel cell vehicles by the beginning of 2015. For the major players in hydrogen, the groundwork for a hydrogen economy has already begun.
But this strategy isn’t going to work for everyone. Countries such as the UK are following a similar route, but on a much smaller scale. The opening of the UK’s first public refuelling station for hydrogen vehicles in Swindon three months ago is one example of this. However, far more still needs to be done in these areas if other major economies want to gain a share of the future global hydrogen market. Without investment in a hydrogen infrastructure, car manufacturers will be reluctant to introduce hydrogen cars.
This is understandable from a business perspective. There needs to be a critical scale of infrastructure in order for a hydrogen economy around the automotive market to be successful. There are both political and economic challenges involved in achieving this. At a time when budgets are stretched, convincing a government to install an entire energy system on a speculative basis will prove near impossible.
The solution for some companies has been to focus on developing and marketing innovative niche products to help drive forward a hydrogen economy. Hydrogen fuel cells used in the portable power market are a good example of this. By encouraging their development, countries like the UK can benefit from using hydrogen as a resource, while at the same time helping to remove barriers to the use of hydrogen in other markets, such as automotive.
The UK market for hydrogen fuel cells in this area is growing and there are already a number of products available such as BOC’s Hymera – the UK’s first commercially viable, low-carbon portable hydrogen fuel cell generator. The Hymera provides up to 200 W of peak power. One unit, when used with high-efficiency LED lights, can provide enough power to light an area the size of a tennis court, or 40 m of track.
Hydrogen fuel cells are a much easier sell in the portable power market because of the clear commercial benefits of using them. Hydrogen fuel cells are highly efficient compared with oil and gas generators. The inefficiency of oil and gas generators becomes obvious at lower powers where a small petrol engine generator will be less than 5% efficient at 100 W and only about 2% efficient at 50 W. There are immediate gains to be made both on the basis of cost, and for the environment.
The other clear benefit is that, unlike oil and gas generators, hydrogen fuel cells do not emit carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and other pollutants. They are almost silent, so are suitable for situations where noise is a problem. Environmental regulations prohibit the use of oil and gas generators in residential areas after certain hours because of noise nuisance. This ban can cost companies both time and money.
Compared with batteries, it is easy to see how much fuel or ‘charge’ is left when using hydrogen fuel cells and the fuel cell does not take several hours to ‘recharge’. Hydrogen can be fed to the fuel cell directly from a compressed gas cylinder or generated by reforming hydrogen-rich fuels such as natural gas or LPG. They don’t require regular replacing or time-consuming recharging.
There are clear and obvious benefits to using hydrogen fuel cells in the portable power market, both in the short and long-term. So while Japan, the US, Germany and others are making big headlines with their hydrogen car plans, it would be well worth keeping an eye on other countries that are taking a more innovative approach to developing a hydrogen economy. It may not appear as glamorous as the green automotive market, but the implications could be just as big.
by Stewart Dow
Stewart Dow studied Physics at the University of St Andrews, followed by and MSc at the University of Strathclyde. After graduating, he worked for various companies including Hartley Measurements, Philips, Tetra Pak and Japanese factory automation company Artificial Intelligence Service Ltd. After studying for an MBA at the University of Cranfield, Stewart joined industrial gases company BOC (now part of the Linde Group) and since 2002 has worked in the field of clean energy.
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20 December 2011