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Crossing Europe on the hydrogen highway

Hydrogen-powered vehicles and refuelling stations are popping up around Europe in an effort to reduce air pollution. Image courtesy of HyFIVE

From Bergen in Norway to Bolzano in Italy, specialised refuelling stations mean that drivers of hydrogen-powered cars can now travel right across Europe.

Hyundai, Toyota and Honda have all developed – and commercialised – cars powered by hydrogen gas. While there are just a handful on Europe’s roads at the moment, that’s all about to change because of a concerted effort to put hydrogen technology into the fast lane.

Hydrogen works in a ‘fuel cell’ to generate electricity, which can drive a car’s wheels via an electric motor, emitting nothing but water vapour in the process.

‘Our activities aim to improve accessibility and interoperability of stations,’ explained Dolly Oladini, the assistant project manager for HyFIVE, one of a group of research projects that are working collectively to deploy thousands of hydrogen vehicles across Europe, and set up dozens of refuelling stations.

The idea is to overcome an existing stalemate in which car manufacturers won’t commercialise hydrogen vehicles until there are places to refuel them, while infrastructure providers won’t build refuelling stations until there are cars to refuel. Until now, this chicken-and-egg situation has prevented the mass rollout of hydrogen transport.

The Issue

Europe’s greenhouse gases and transport emissions remain higher than in 1990.

It’s one of the sectors that will have to show dramatic reductions in emissions if we are to cut back on greenhouse gases by enough to keep global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial times.

The EU’s strategy for low-emissions mobility includes speeding up the deployment of advanced biofuels, hydrogen and electricity, and accelerating the transition towards zero-emissions vehicles.

In 2013, the EU outlined in an official communication what would be required to substitute oil as an energy source across all modes of transport.

A fair amount of scepticism surrounded the so-called hydrogen economy in the early 2000s, as hydrogen is neither easy to store nor to get hold of in the first place. But technology has improved and, said Oladini, there is a growing awareness of the pollution caused by regular internal combustion engines.

Pollution deaths

Earlier this year, the Global Burden of Disease project, a collaboration of hundreds of researchers the world over, reported that more than 5.5 million people worldwide die every year from air pollution, largely due to vehicle exhaust.

‘Air quality is really high on the political agenda, not just for London but for other global cities,’ said Oladini, who is based at the Greater London Authority, London’s overall governing body and the coordinating partner of HyFIVE.

HyFIVE has attempted to broker the stalemate on hydrogen transport by setting up agreements between car manufacturers – BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota – and refuelling station providers – Air Products, Danish Hydrogen Fuel, ITM Power, Linde and OMV. The project, which was launched in 2014, was co-funded by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership between the European Commission, industry and research. The EU contributed EUR 18 million, while project partners put in EUR 20 million.

One of the main challenges was finding places to site the refuelling stations, particularly in the UK capital. ‘London doesn’t have a lot of land we can build on,’ said Oladini, ‘and where we do, it’s very complicated and political as to who can build on it.’

By the time the project completes next year, HyFIVE expects to have arranged the building of six refuelling stations and the deployment of 185 fuel cell cars in strategic European cities – London, Copenhagen in Denmark, Stuttgart and Munich in Germany, Innsbruck in Austria and Bolzano. That is a good start for hydrogen transport – but another project, Hydrogen Mobility Europe (H2ME), wants to go a lot further.

Coming in two phases, and with a total cost of over EUR 160 million, H2ME intends to deploy 49 refuelling stations and 1 550 fuel-cell cars, vans and trucks. The two H2ME projects - H2ME and H2ME2 - share many of the same partners of HyFIVE, including the low-carbon engineering consultancy Element Energy, based in Cambridge, UK, which coordinates H2ME.

Pan-European

The scale of H2ME comes in part from its aim to bring together national hydrogen transport initiatives, which vary in aim and scope.

‘The technology has been proven.’

Lisa Ruf, Element Energy, UK

The UK, for example, is attempting to promote hydrogen transport in isolated clusters, which will join up over time; France is focusing on commercial hydrogen vehicles; while Scandinavia has been encouraging the purchase of hydrogen technology with tax incentives.

The first phase of H2ME – construction of 29 refuelling stations and deployment of 325 fuel-cell vehicles – will be completed in 2020. The second phase, during which the remainder of the refuelling stations and vehicles will be deployed, will be completed in 2022.

After that, it could just be a matter of time before the passenger car market sees a real influx of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Lisa Ruf, the day-to-day coordinator of H2ME at Element Energy, said she expects that the market will take off by 2025, although cannot say when the regular internal combustion will become a thing of the past.

‘The technology has been proven – it’s really now a case of understanding the practicalities,’ she said.

Increasing the number of hydrogen refuelling stations across Europe is part of a concerted effort to encourage use of the technology.

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