Is hydrogen the future of mobility?

By Margaux Cervatius - 10 August 2021

The hydrogen engine, which is often associated with smart mobility, has been the focus of public and private interest for several years. Today, hydrogen can already power cars and trucks, and will probably extend to aircraft in the future.

As the leader in hydrogen mobility, Europe is increasing its funding and regulations to encourage the use of hydrogen for transportation. The European Commission launched a European Green Hydrogen Alliance in 2020, as part of the European Green Deal. The goal is to produce up to 10 million tons of renewable hydrogen in the EU by 2030. Several European Member States have announced plans to invest in hydrogen, which will contribute to the post-Covid-19 economic recovery. France and Germany will spend €7 billion and €9 billion respectively over the next ten years to create a hydrogen industry.

Hydrogen is also gaining momentum with large corporations, which want to start their energy transition. For example, Total restructured its CVC to devote $400 million over five years to carbon neutrality and hydrogen. Evidently, investors have their eyes on this trend and are trying to get the lion’s share. Eleven key hydrogen companies have seen their share prices rise by an average of over 300% in 2020.

However, access to funding is far from being the only driving factor. Collaboration between various public and private players, both startups and large corporations, is essential. It will enable the creation of adequate infrastructure and result in a clean, efficient hydrogen market.

Why hydrogen?

Hydrogen has many advantages:

  • It is available in unlimited quantities year-round since it is found in water but also in all organic compounds;
  • It’s eleven times lighter than air and can be transported under pressure, in liquid or solid form;
  • It can be produced locally and thus enable countries to achieve energy self-sufficiency;
  • Its combustion emits no CO2, no sulfur oxide, and no fine particles. The only substance coming out of a hydrogen engine is water.

A new fuel with an attractive performance

Hydrogen engines offer better performance than combustion engines. In fact, one kilogram of hydrogen contains as much energy as 3.3 litres of diesel fuel. To travel 100 kilometres, a car would only need about one kilogram of hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be compressed and stored to be used on-demand as a green gas or to be converted back into electricity using a fuel cell. It offers a range of about 600 kilometres, instead of 150 for conventional electric vehicles. In addition, charging a hydrogen engine takes three to five minutes, instead of several hours.

This strong performance suggests that hydrogen could be used for energy-intensive means of transport, such as aircraft. In June 2020, the French government unveiled a comprehensive plan to support the aeronautics industry, which has been hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis. Of the 15 billion euros, the plan devotes 1.5 billion to research with the goal of creating a carbon-neutral aircraft by 2035. Recently, the ADP Group, Air France-KLM and Airbus launched a call for expressions of interest to explore the opportunities offered by hydrogen at Paris’ airports.

The three hydrogen-powered aircraft concepts presented by Airbus in September 2020 (Source: Airbus)

Obstacles to the development and adoption of the hydrogen engine

As hydrogen gas is almost absent from our atmosphere, it must be extracted from molecules that contain it, such as water or organic compounds. This process requires energy and is not necessarily environmentally friendly.

Of the 70 million tons of hydrogen produced in the world in 2019, nearly 95% was grey hydrogen. This is produced by the steam reforming of methane, or natural gas, and is therefore based on fossil fuels. Steam can break CH4 molecules of natural gas, which produces dihydrogen. This operation emits CO2, which few facilities capture for reuse.

There is a more sustainable process: water electrolysis. This involves using electricity to transform water into hydrogen. As the electricity passes through the liquid, it disturbs the water molecules, breaks bonds and separates hydrogen from the rest of the molecule. Electrolysis itself does not release any CO2, but the electricity must come from renewable energies for the hydrogen to be truly green. Still, renewable energies are not always continuously available and their price is subject to strong fluctuations. Overall, green hydrogen is more expensive to produce: up to €5 per kilo, while it costs €2.5 for blue hydrogen (with carbon capture) and only €1.5 for grey hydrogen.

Producing hydrogen sustainably and efficiently is one part of the puzzle; distributing it efficiently nationwide is another. For hydrogen cars and trucks to become widely available, drivers must have access to a charging network. However, in 2020, there were only 125 hydrogen charging stations in operation in Europe, including 84 in Germany. Extending this network to provide better coverage of the territory will require heavy investments in infrastructure.

Startups facilitate the transition to hydrogen mobility

Innovative production methods

The production of grey hydrogen is mature and widespread among industrials. Therefore, startups are focusing on the green hydrogen niche market. They are looking to develop more efficient electrolysers that would offer a better yield. This is the case of the French startup McPhy, which raised €180 million in 2020 from major investors and corporates (including EDF). It is developing very large capacity electrolysers. It targets large-scale projects (over 100 MW) and very large capacity hydrogen stations.

An electrolyser developed by McPhy (Source)

While many startups use wind or solar energy to power the electrolysis process, others are turning to biomass. They offer modules to be installed on biomass production sites, in order to immediately offset carbon emissions. In France, Haffner Energy has developed a solution to produce renewable hydrogen from various biomasses using thermolysis. In the UK, Powerhouse Energy proposes to burn plastic waste at very high temperatures to produce synthesis gas, from which hydrogen can be extracted.

Applications of hydrogen for the future of mobility

Startups are also very active in the fuel cell sector. These cells allow compact storage of hydrogen while standardising its format. These startups thus facilitate the integration of hydrogen into electric vehicles. Examples include H2SYS, a French startup rated by Early Metrics, and PowerCell, a former subsidiary of Volvo.

While major car manufacturers are starting to bet on hydrogen, some startups are offering retrofit solutions. This means converting the combustion engines of existing vehicles into hydrogen engines, therefore giving vehicles a second life and reducing the production of new vehicles. Startups handle the entire conversion process: removing the combustion engine, integrating fuel cells, reprogramming the vehicle, getting it certified for the road… ULEMCo, a British startup rated by Early Metrics, converts diesel-powered city trucks. It integrates a hydrogen tank and adapts their engine to this new fuel. This process allows transport companies to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 60%.

Finally, some companies are focusing on the secure transport and distribution of hydrogen. They help local authorities deploy charging stations, which are few and far between today. Atawey is developing green hydrogen production and distribution stations, that allow for the charging of all types of vehicles.

Towards a new hydrogen strategy

Industrial players are already producing hydrogen in large quantities, but most of them are using fossil fuels to do so. The challenge today is to promote the production of green hydrogen. Making this technology widespread will require the implementation of a large-scale distribution network. And there are many opportunities for startups, all along the value chain. Green hydrogen can help manufacturers meet their environmental commitments in order to reach the goals set by the Paris Agreement, an issue that has become ever more crucial since the Covid-19 pandemic.

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