Air QualityEnvironment & ClimateFossil Fuels

Hydrogen – Future fuel or short-term solution for truck, heavy duty & off-highway emissions?

By February 18, 2021 No Comments

Hydrogen is a big buzz phrase amongst ICE manufacturers, environmental groups & the UK Government.

‘In November 2020, the UK Government published The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution which included a commitment to a hydrogen strategy to be published in 2021.’(1)

‘Hydrogen is the lightest, simplest and most abundant chemical element in the universe. It could provide a clean source of fuel and heat for our homes, transport and industry.’ (1)

The UK Hydrogen Economy document prepared ahead of the Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 17 December 2020, with Alexander Stafford MP having lead the debate; summarised Hydrogen gas as:

Hydrogen gas is regarded as an energy option to help decarbonisation, especially for sectors that may be more challenging to decarbonise. These sectors include heating, transport (including heavy goods, shipping, and aviation) and some industrial processes.  (1)

The UK Government recognises the potential for Hydrogen to assist in the decarbonisation of the energy sector & support the target of Net-Zero emissions for 2050. This is of particular interest for the transport sector & specifically heavy duty, shipping & aviation. With it estimated that around 50 million tonnes of hydrogen is produced globally each year for various industrial uses, the UK already produces around 0.7 Mt of this. (1)

However, a market uptake of Hydrogen as a future fuel for transport, in particular heavy duty, shipping & aviation; still has some way to go to convince BEV champions & Policy makers alike.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell technologies have been being developed for many years, but the perpetual downside to the take up as a more widely used fuel source, is the infrastructure for refuelling. ‘People don’t want to buy hydrogen cars until there are enough hydrogen refuelling stations — and there’s not much incentive to build hydrogen refuelling stations until more people are driving hydrogen cars’ (2)

Despite Hydrogen producing Zero-Emissions when in use, it does produce CO2 in it’s production, making it currently unable to gain the net-zero seal of approval. The International Energy Agency report 2019 titled ‘The Future of Hydrogen’ found that:

Supplying hydrogen to industrial users is now a major business around the world. Demand for hydrogen, which has grown more than threefold since 1975, continues to rise – almost entirely supplied from fossil fuels, with 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal going to hydrogen production. (3)

As a consequence, production of hydrogen is responsible for CO2 emissions of around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined. (3)

Despite these alarming figures, the IEA report did recognise that:

Hydrogen can help tackle various critical energy challenges. It offers ways to decarbonise a range of sectors – including long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel – where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions. (3)

Therefore, despite the inherent issues with the CO2 produced in the processing of Hydrogen, thus far the UK Government & the IEA recognise that Hydrogen does have a part to pay in the decarbonisation of the transport sector, in particular the heavy duty, shipping & aviation applications.

To corroborate these findings, the most recent Advanced Propulsion Centre & UK Automotive Council ‘Roadmaps to Net-Zero’ series; also recognise that Hydrogen is being sought after.

New ICE architecture energy sources

In addition to blended and low-carbon fuels, significant gain with zero-carbon fuels like, hydrogen are promising for long range vehicles. Hydrogen combustion engines with, suitable aftertreatment for NOx management, can provide a cost-effective net-zero emissions solution for many heavy duty and off-highway vehicles in this category. (4)

Fuel cell energy sources

Hydrogen fuel cells require low carbon sources i.e., blue hydrogen (from natural gas with CCS) or green (from renewable electricity). Solid oxide fuel cells can operate on existing commercial fuels, e.g., blended bio-fuels, and at high fuel efficiencies. (4)

Despite the obvious needs of adapting & adopting new fuelling infrastructures as part of the drive to Net Zero, the possibilities of vehicle type & performance have also been considered in the latest Roadmap with specific application-tailored technologies will vary from region to region. Here is an overview of the Roadmap vehicular options for a Net Zero Heavy Goods >3.5t and Off-highway future. (4)

Long Range Conventional ICE

Lower emission ICE are evolving, using blended and lower carbon fuel. Fuels with low or zero carbon content, including hydrogen, are already being considered. (4)

Despite the seeming positivity for Hydrogen as a way to move the decarbonisation of the heavy duty, shipping & aviation sector forward; one of the leading truck & heavy-duty manufacturers has just announced that they are moving away from hydrogen in favour of battery-electric.

Scania, having already launched both battery and fuel cell trucks, has announced it’s committing to batteries, citing hydrogen’s wastefully inefficient use of renewable energy, as well as additional system complexity, cost, safety and ongoing maintenance factors. (5)

“In a few years’ time, Scania plans to introduce long-distance electric trucks that will be able to carry a total weight of 40 tonnes for 4.5 hours, and fast charge during the drivers’ compulsory 45-minute rest. By 2025, Scania expects that electrified vehicles will account for around 10 percent or our total vehicle sales volumes in Europe and by 2030, 50 percent of our total vehicle sales volumes are expected to be electrified.” (5)

As one of the leading manufacturers of trucks, heavy duty & haulage solutions has already decided to turn it’s back on the ‘Hydrogen revolution’; what does this say for this seemingly successful solution to the decarbonisation of the heavy duty, truck & off-highway transport sector? Is Hydrogen really a ‘future fuel’ or is it, as Scania feels they have already ascertained, a short-term solution to a long-term problem?

Written by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2

  1. House of Commons Library CDP 2020-0172 , 16 December 2020