How the UK is making hydrogen the future
Automotive isn’t just developing battery technology to help reduce vehicle emissions, and now the government is getting onboard with hydrogen investment to help decarbonise the industry.
Hydrogen has been heralded as the fuel of the future. A technology that could help the automotive industry shift away from petrol and diesel without the initial drawbacks of battery technology for example.
But it’s always been a technology that has been a decade away from commercial readiness. Until now.
The UK government is convinced that hydrogen will be fundamental to achieving net zero in transport, potentially complementing electrification across modes of transport such as buses and heavy goods vehicles.
Low carbon hydrogen can provide an alternative to petrol, diesel and kerosene as it can be used directly in combustion engines, fuel cells and turbines or as feedstock for production of transport fuels, including ammonia and sustainable aviation fuels.
“We expect low carbon hydrogen to play a key role in decarbonising the sector, which is the largest single contributor to UK domestic GHG emissions and was responsible for 27% of emissions in 2019,” states the government’s latest UK Hydrogen Strategy report.
Transport is also a crucial early market for hydrogen, driving some of the earliest low carbon production in the UK. There are over 300 hydrogen vehicles on UK roads, mostly passenger cars and buses, and the government is supporting hydrogen use in transport with a £23 million Hydrogen for Transport Programme.
The government’s latest analysis places transport as one of the biggest components of the hydrogen economy in future, with 2050 demand potentially reaching up to 140TWh.
How will the UK push hydrogen in transport?
It’s likely that hydrogen in transport will evolve over the course of the 2020s and beyond. To date, road transport has been a leading early market for hydrogen in the UK.
“Going forward, we expect hydrogen vehicles, particularly depot-based transport including buses, to constitute the bulk of 2020s hydrogen demand from the mobility sector. Fuel cell hydrogen buses have a range similar to their diesel counterparts. Back to depot operating means hydrogen refuelling infrastructure can be more centralised and is likely to be compatible with distributed hydrogen production expected in this period. Concurrently, we will undertake a range of research and innovation activity which will focus on difficult to decarbonise transport modes, such as heavy road freight. As we demonstrate and understand these larger-scale applications we are likely to see more diversity in transport end uses in the late 2020s and early 2030s,” states the government report.
The government hopes that by 2030 hydrogen will be used across a range of transport modes, including HGVs and buses, and its analysis shows there could be up to 6TWh demand for low carbon hydrogen from transport in 2030.
“We recognise that the longer-term role for hydrogen in transport decarbonisation is not yet clear, but it is likely to be most effective in the areas where energy density requirements or duty cycles and refuelling times make it the most suitable low carbon energy source. Key challenges in this area include technology uncertainty, lack of existing hydrogen infrastructure, cost differentials and low numbers of hydrogen powered vehicles. Continued investment in research and innovation by government and industry will help to overcome these. As we learn more about ways in which hydrogen can be used in transport, we will need to put policy in place to support this technology rollout.”
The biggest beneficiary in the automotive sector could be large long-haul HGVs which face huge challenges in developing zero emission options due to their long journey distances and heavy payload requirements.
To try and develop solutions the government is investing up to £20 million to design trials for electric road system and hydrogen fuel cell HGVs and to run a battery electric trial to establish the feasibility, deliverability, costs and benefits of these technologies in the UK. To further support the shift away from fossil fuels, the government is also consulting on the phase out date for the sale of new non-zero emission HGVs.
There is a huge emphasis on battery electric mobility and it will form a huge part of keeping the industry moving in a decarbonised future, but outside of passenger and light-commercial vehicles, hydrogen could be key to reducing emissions across the board.