‘Remember, it took the world 120 years to make an efficient diesel engine’

17 Dec 2015 | News
Science|Business talks to Bert De Colvenaer, the man working to make hydrogen fuel cell technology widely available and affordable in Europe

You might expect Bert De Colvenaer, head of the EU-backed Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, to be bullish about hydrogen power and its future.

Instead the Belgian charged with standing the industry upright on its two legs in Europe is thoughtful and circumspect. “I don’t think we’ve seen a great leap or step change yet with hydrogen – there’s been incremental progress,” he told Science|Business.

“But then, remember, it took the world 120 years to produce an efficient diesel engine.”

The fuel cell platform brings together a small, budding community of European hydrogen power manufacturers and researchers. The impetus for forming the platform was the realisation that everyone involved in the technology needed to work together, otherwise each would be waiting for the other to make the first move.

It was formed in May 2008 and renewed by the European Commission for a second term last year, with a budget of €1.33 billion. The portfolio comprises a mix of projects ranging from basic and applied research to demonstrations.

As a clean alternative to petrol and diesel, hydrogen powered vehicles have been one of those “just around the corner” energy sources for over a decade now.

Now the technology is slowly coming into our lives. South Korean manufacturer Hyundai and the world’s biggest carmaker, Toyota, released the first mass-market hydrogen cars this year.

Instead of coughing out carbon dioxide, the only emissions from a fuel cell vehicle’s exhaust is clean water vapour. 

European carmakers have nothing yet to match these efforts, although Germany’s Daimler has a hydrogen car in production. “It’s going to be on a par, if not better than Hyundai and Toyota’s cars,” maintains De Colvenaer.

If Asian carmakers have manoeuvred into the fast lane, the competition for hydrogen buses sees Europe in the box seat. “We’re world leaders,” said De Colvenaer. “There’s 150 different fuel cell buses in the world – we produce around 100 of them.”

In Scotland, the Aberdeen Hydrogen Bus Project currently has 10 hydrogen fuel cell buses operating, the largest fleet in Europe. Transport for London owns eight.

The big disadvantage is that these buses cost on average 217 per cent more than their diesel counterparts, according to a recent analysis. However, the price is expected to fall dramatically over the next few years.  

How clean is hydrogen?

De Colvenaer feels the industry is well poised to take advantage of the big pollution scandal at Volkswagen and the unprecedented global agreement on climate change signed in Paris last week.  

“There’s a global trend to push hydrogen up the agenda – but let’s not have excessive acceleration, we can’t deliver it tomorrow,” he said.

But doubts remain over its green credentials in that most hydrogen is derived from natural gas production. “The so-called ‘grey hydrogen’ method is currently the cheapest method,” said De Colvenaer. For that reason it makes up 90 per cent of total production in the world.

The more environmentally friendly approach sees hydrogen produced through electrolysis - splitting water using solar, wind or other renewable power, into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen.

This is certainly cleaner, but more expensive - currently around 10 times the price for now. “Technology-wise, it’s actually simpler,” De Colvenaer said.  

Denmark already has five hydrogen filling stations with embedded electrolysers, and Aberdeen Council recently opened the UK's largest hydrogen production and bus refuelling station.

Battery or hydrogen?

To achieve mass adoption, the fuel cell hydrogen industry will have to overcome many of the same difficulties faced by electric vehicles.

Hydrogen vehicles boast a longer driving range – the Toyota Mirai’s is 340 miles – and quicker refuelling than electric counterparts such as the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3. But the cost of these vehicles means they are likely to remain a rare sight on roads in the next few years.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding whether people will switch to hydrogen cars, manufacturers are content to dip their toes into the market for now. Toyota has set itself the target of rolling out 30,000 hydrogen vehicles in 2020. It is a relatively small figure, said De Colvenaer.

As is the case for electric and plug-in hybrid cars, the popularity of hydrogen power will also depend a great deal on the availability of hydrogen refuelling stations.

So far the number installed in Europe pales when compared to the hundreds of thousands of petrol and diesel stations, as well as the steadily growing network of electric car charging points.

Governments in the UK, Germany, France and Scandinavia have identified a need for over 600 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2023, at an estimated investment of €600 million. Germany alone is planning 400 hydrogen filling stations.

The lack of a proper network has been cited by some energy analysts as the biggest barrier facing the industry. De Colvenaer concedes it is likely a factor in Daimler’s decision to hold back its hydrogen model.

Despite many analysts pitting electric and hydrogen cars in competition with each other, there is little doubt in De Colvenaer’s mind that the world will need both technologies to deal with climate change.

He sees electric cars as teammates, not rivals, in the bid to drive petrol cars off the road. “I don’t believe we’re in competition with electric cars. We’re complementary: we’ll both succeed or we’ll both fail,” he said.

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