12/13/2021 | Hydrogen Innovation

Hydrogen's journey

Hydrogen is fast emerging as the fuel of the future. From road to rail shipping and aviation, it has begun revolutionising the way we get from A to B. And the journey is only just the beginning.

BMW’s decision to road-test cars powered with a hydrogen fuel cell drive train marked more than just another chapter in the story of one of Germany’s leading luxury car brands. More significantly, it was a further step to bringing Europe into line with the likes of Japan and the US terms of cleaner fuels on our roads.

And just like Volvo, which recently joined the Swedish stell manufacturer, SSAB, in a project to explore ways of producing fossil-free components, it was another example of the sort of corporate alliances being formed as we move towards a cleaner transport system. BMW produced its own fuel cell stack for its Hydrogen Next prototype but the individual cells had been produced by another car company, Toyota.

There are ground-breaking hydrogen projects under way all over Europe, notably in Germany which recently saw its first hydrogen-fuelled rail project come to fruition in the form of its Coradia iLint trains. Built by French TGV-maker Alstom, they are apparently able to run for about 1,000km on a single tank of hydrogen, just like diesel trains.

The industrial gases giant Linde was chosen to supply liquid green hydrogen to Norway’s MF Hydra, the world’s first passenger ferry powered in this way. Linde, a founding member of both the Hydrogen Council and the Hydrogen Mobility association, built a 24MW proton exchange, membrane (PEM) electrolyser at its Leuna chemical complex in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, for the purpose. As a result, the fuel cell-powered ferry is expected to reduce its annual carbon emissions by up to 95 per cent.

And there was early recognition of these effort. Only weeks ago, Hydra was named Ship of the Year by Skipsrevyen, the Norwegian magazine whose editor-in-chief Gustav Erik Blaalid commented that the combination of hydrogen and electrical power “makes MF Hydra one of the most environmentally friendly ferries in the world”. He also pointed out: “Hydrogen, which is a zero-emission fuel, also show promising signs of being an alternative fuel for ships, even over longer distances.”

Armando Botello, president, Europe North, at Linde expressed his pride in working with the shipping company, Norled, to take what he called “the lead in developing the marine sector’s transition to climate-friendly fuels”. He went on to add: “Hydrogen is a powerful energy-carrier with proven potential for reducing carbon emissions when used in mobility.”

Norway itself is working to a pledge to decarbonise its entire transport infrastructure, not just its shipping and ferry sector. Cruise ships are known to be among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on its coasts. Norwegian Electrical Systems, a Bergen-based system integrator earlier announced plan to incorporate a 3.2MW hydrogen fuel cell on a large vessel being built for Havila to cruise Norway’s fjords. Norled CEO Heidi Wolden said at the time that “hydrogen will play a significant role in the future of zero-emission ships”.

Taking the hydrogen bus

Buses are also prime candidates for this type of propulsion, given their propensity to stop and start and move slowly in heavily populated areas. Early incarnations of fuel cell buses appeared on the streets of Vancouver, Canada, in the late nineties and in London in 2004 and Beijing in 2006.

They are now a regular feature of London traffic. In fact, one model, the StreetDeck FCEV, uses a Ballard fuel cell, a Siemens drivetrain and a 48 kW traction battery pack. The system delivers a 322km operating range and operators say refuelling takes around seven minutes to complete.

In rail transport scenarios, electrical energy is generated on-board in a fuel cell and is then intermediately stored in batteries. Each battery stores energy from the fuel cell when it is not needed to move the vehicle, or from regenerated energy of the train during the electric braking process. The fuel cells and the hydrogen tanks are mounted on the roof which delivers the advantage of additional cooling as the train reaches speeds of 80 km/h.

Hydrogen trains made for the UK market have no such advantages, thanks to the limited clearance of many of the country’s rail tunnels, although one that came off the drawing boards of the University of Birmingham is designed to contain them underneath the carriages. The train, known as HydroFLEX, was trialled in Warwickshire in September last year and was a first for the country. A further breakthrough there is a target of 2023 to retrofit current in-service trains to hydrogen, helping to further decarbonise the rail network.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps used the launch of the trial to reinforce the Government’s commitment to a hydrogen future, when he said: “As we continue on our road to a green recovery, we know that to really harness the power of transport to improve our country – and to set a global gold standard – we must truly embed change.”

DECHEMA were quick to realise the potential a future hydrogen economy would have on the way process industries function when they formed their Hydrogen Competence Centre, backed by the joint resources and expertise of DECHEMA e.V. and their DFI Research Institute. The centre was formed as a start-to-finish service, embracing all aspects from concept to delivery and offering everything from micro-project management to scenario planning to stakeholder co-ordination and a ability to be able to provide basic advice to continuous education programmes.

Although still very much at an early stage of development, the organisers believe it offers a “unique mix of experience and skills to complement a client’s know how”.

Florian Ausfelder explained: The basic idea is to offer a tailor-made consultancy service dependent on the client’s need. This can range from specific material testing to process simulations, but also joint conceptual development. He said the team are encouraged by the requests they have received so far and are optimistic about its future development.

I asked him broadly about its use in transportation scenarios and he told me: “Hydrogen offers the opportunity for a fuel without harmful local emissions. This makes it especially interesting for transport applications but also for industrial high-temperature processes”, pointing out that hydrogen will also play an important role as a basis for chemical feedstock in the future. These are likely to become the most important areas of the Centre’s activities. But on transport in particular, he added: “In Germany, a significant part of its railway network is still not electrified, and this is unlikely to change in the future. The reason is that these lines are serviced only by few trains a day and the investment into full electrification is not economical. These lines are currently served by diesel-powered trains. These can substituted by hydrogen-powered trains. This is actually already taking place and can be expected to eventually cover all non-electrified tracks. Since a lot of the tracks are serviced by regional operators, it is not a centralised development.”

One more general note, I asked him about how global influences may shape what is happening in Europe. He responded: “The EU is caught by very different interests from the member states. It will adapt aspects from other countries but won’t just be copying them The EU looks foremost at the challenges in industry, which also makes it the most difficult task.”

Looking to the future in terms of issues to watch, he added: “Internationally, it will be interesting to see how green Ammonia plays out in the future, for shipping, energy storage and transport or as chemicals and fertilisers.”

In the UK, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS), a company noted as a market leader of innovation, is on a mission to make the world’s first, regulatory-certified, zero-emissions, commercial aircraft available to passengers by 2025.

The company recently bought a Britten-Norman Islander from Isles of Scilly Steamship Group which it plans to retrofit with hydrogen fuel cell technology. CAeS is leading the country’s Project Fresson consortium, which is currently integrating hydrogen fuel cell technology to develop a commercially viable, retrofit powertrain solution for aviation. The arrival of the Islander is seen as an important milestone in the project timeline as it will enable the company to commence test flights on the existing engines and record their full performance before making the alterations needed to remove existing powertrains and install and test the revolutionary hydrogen alternatives.

CAeS has a target of early 2023 for the first test flight and for the zero emissions product to be in the £820 million Islander market by 2025, both as a retrofit solution, and incorporated into a new model of the Islander. This constitutes the first phase of the hydrogen aviation journey by CAeS, with the aim to next produce a commercially viable hydrogen 19-seat aircraft, before ultimately developing a new design zero emissions 75-seat regional aircraft. CAeS is along-established aircraft company with a client base that has included the likes of Boeing, Airbus, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, L3, Thales and Raytheon. There’s even an added bonus in their location.: at Cranfield Airport they have access to some of the UK’s most advanced aviation research facilities.

CEO Paul Hutton said: “It is critical that the aviation industry delivers real zero emissions aircraft solutions to reduce its impact on the environment. We are now rapidly progressing to delivering the first certified emissions-free passenger carrying aircraft services anywhere in the world.” While hydrogen is clearly beginning to impact all areas of the transportation industry, there’s also the question of transporting the hydrogen itself, given that only a small amount of it in use is generally produced anywhere on-site.

It’s interesting to note that the very first hydrogen pipeline was built in 1938: a 250-300mm diameter one made of standard-grade pipe steel running for 240km between Rhine and Ruhr areas of Germany. Others followed notably, one in Isbergues, France, which over a few decades was extended to reach Zeebrugge and later, to Rotterdam. Since then, technology has moved on. There is now a far greater understanding of the likely metallurgical effects: in particular, the embrittlement that can result when hydrogen atoms interact with the crystal lattices within the steel, all of which can be offset with the right choice of materials and correct temperature and pressure controls.

Tackling the delivery dilemma

Although hydrogen tends to be used as a gas in most instances, it doesn’t have to be transported in that form. Most of the supplies have been delivered via sell cylinders or refrigerated tube trailers of the sort common on UK roads. But significantly, as we get to a future in which hydrogen cars are the norm, there will be a growing need for the development of methods that are both lightweight and safe. Compressed hydrogen can be stored in fuel tanks based on type IV carbon-composite technology which has seen substantial improvements over the past decade. It is also stored in cryogenic conditions in insulated tanks which are typically set to -253°C. Evidence of this is apparent in the hydrogen trucks used for long-distance deliveries in the United States.

Transporting it as a liquid by road is more economical than gas, given that a liquid tanker truck can hold a much larger volume than a gaseous tube trailer, although that too has its issues such as the potential for boil-off during delivery. In the US, liquid hydrogen is also moved in bulk by rail in tanks which have double walls, often described as similar to those of like a vacuum flask, multi-layer insulation and sunlight reflectors.

Meeting of minds on zero-emission shipping

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies of Germany and Norway’s Johannes Ostensjo dy AS have collaborated on a project to develop emission-free liquid organic hydrogen carrier-based applications for maritime propulsion with the aim of having a commercial product by 2025. Their focus is on-board LOHC fuel cell propulsion systems on a megawatt scale. By binding the hydrogen to the LOHC, they say, the result will be a particularly safe technology. Dr. Daniel Teichmann, Chairman of the joint-venture company, Hydrogenious LOHC Maritime AS, described the Ostensjo Group as the ideal partner for such a project as they had “seen LOHC as the game changer for the decarbonisation of shipping for some time”.


Richard Burton

Editor / World Show Media


Keywords in this article:


Find more contributions:

Detailed search in the magazine


Always up to date

With our newsletter you will receive current information on ACHEMA on a regular basis. You are guaranteed not to miss any important dates.

Subscribe now