Hydrogen’s long road ahead

A hydrogen-powered version of London’s black cab was launched today, with plans for a small fleet by 2012. Although there is optimism surrounding the prospects for the technology, there are still plenty of hurdles to leap before it becomes viable.

Hopes for an eco-vehicle revolution have taken another step forward with the recent launch of a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid version of London’s iconic black cab. But although a number of concerns have been dealt with, there is still a long way to go to fulfil a pledge by London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, to see all of the city’s taxis operating with zero emissions by 2020, and even further before hybrids can begin to challenge traditional fuel sources on the road.

The hydrogen fuel cell works in tandem with rechargeable lithium batteries. Either can power the cab’s engine and the fuel cell recharges the batteries as well as providing power directly. The prototype has plenty going for it. The main attraction is the absence of the traditional cough and splutter of an exhaust pipe – the hybrid vehicle emits only heat and water vapour. With no emissions of particulates (which contribute to lower air quality) the new cab has the potential to win over Londoners, while its lack of CO2 emissions should prove attractive in the political context of searching for solutions to climate change.

However, there are still several obstacles. The cab’s zero emissions refer to what happens “at point of use” (i.e. what comes directly from the vehicle). The hydrogen itself must be created. If that is not done in a renewable way (and the infrastructure to do so does not currently exist), then the overall saving in carbon emissions will be far lower, since traditional hydrogen manufacture relies on burning fossil fuels.

Transport is also tricky. Natural-gas pipelines cannot be used because hydrogen makes the steel tubing brittle and attacks the welds. Special production processes are needed to make pipes for carrying hydrogen. For that reason, few exist. The alternative is to liquefy the hydrogen at great expense and transport it in road tankers refrigerated with liquid nitrogen, at great expense.

Problems with a lack of infrastructure do not end at the manufacturing and transport level. Hydrogen hybrids face the same ‘chicken and egg’ problem as plug-in electric vehicles when it comes to fuelling: there are not enough fuelling points to create demand for vehicles, and too few vehicles to justify building fuel stations. London taxis are owned by their drivers, most of whom depend on their vehicles for their livelihoods. Although a great deal of work has been done to make sure the hybrid will be as reliable and durable as its petrol counterpart, a wholesale transfer to hydrogen will need more incentive.

Money is a major obstacle. John Russell, CEO of Manganese Bonds, the holding company for LTI vehicles (which manufactures the traditional black cab), has said that there will be “tremendous funding issues” before a hybrid fleet becomes a reality.  Creating enough fuelling stations to make it worthwhile to own a hydrogen hybrid will take a lot of investment. So will supporting the energy infrastructure that is necessary if the technology is going to have any environmental impact beyond its improvement of air quality. Although that benefit ought not to be taken lightly, it will be difficult to justify expenditure on a “green fuel source” that is in some ways just as polluting as its predecessor.

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Brazil’s dilemma

Brazil is having to deal with the downside of success, both on the oil and biofuel front.

As our recently-updated Brazil Energy report points out, the country is still formulating its policy to tighten its grip on the oil sector to ensure the vast bulk of the wealth expected from the “pre-salt” offshore oil riches accrue to the public sector.

Don't be jealous

Even before production has begun to ramp up significantly, however, The Economist notes that proposals to distribute the oil wealth more evenly throughout Brazil’s states – rather than just Rio and Espírito Santo, which have received the bulk of it so far – has caused consternation among politicians who will lose out.

The country faces the downside of success on another front too. Helping Brazil to maximise the revenue from its oil windfall has been its achievement — originally, in response to the 1970s oil crises — in becoming the biggest domestic user of biofuels in transport and the world’s largest exporter of sugar cane-based ethanol. As our country report forecasts, government figures show that “flex-fuel” car production is approaching 90% of the total, so that Brazil is on track to have three-quarters of its car fleet having flex-fuel capability (running on either gasoline, biofuels or a combination of both) by 2020.

However, a story on Foreign Policy magazine’s website points out that this is a double-edged achievement:

As a result of its turn toward ethanol, Brazil avoided emitting 600 million tons of carbon between 1974 and 2004. So what’s with environmentalists who complain about ethanol — won’t they ever be satisfied?

While sugar cane ethanol is certainly less ecologically destructive than some other biofuels, the industry’s boosters have overlooked one key fact: You’ve got to plant sugar cane somewhere. One couldn’t pick a worse place to harvest cane than Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest. There, sugar cane crops have led to deforestation and, paradoxically, more carbon emissions.

In typically forthright fashion, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has dismissed the criticisms – mainly, but by no means exclusively, coming from western environmentalists and like-minded governments – as motivated by jealousy. And it’s unlikely his successor will hold back the country’s march toward a biofuelled future.

Hydrogen vs EV, Round 5

At the very least, Suzuki’s Burgman Fuel Cell Scooter prototype (pictured) passes the embarrassment test: you wouldn’t feel like a fool tooling around the city on it, as you probably would in some electric vehicles like the Smart Car or a Toyota iQ, or certainly the old Sinclair C5 tricycle (remember them?).

Indeed, the bike is intended to look just like a conventional Suzuki Burgman and was developed with Intelligent Energy, a UK-based fuel cell developer, to address some other issues that have held back commercial deployment of fuel-cell vehicles — its makers claim a range of 350km, a re-fueling time of just a few minutes, as well as engine power comparable to its conventional stablemate.

It’s expected to be rolled out commercially sometime around 2015 as a realistic alternative to a standard combustion bike, and is designed to have mass appeal, specifically targeted for use in the urban environment by London’s commuters. The London prototype unveiling, with the backing of city authorities, also comes amid talk of a European Union move to crack down on motorbike emissions.

However, there are plenty of questions still to be answered and the impetus both in the EU and the USA heavily favours electric vehicles (EV) over hydrogen.

The initial price of the Suzuki Burgman fuel cell scooter will be relatively high — perhaps twice the current price tag of US$6,000 for a conventional bike — though that would fall if the bike found a large enough market. Bigger issues include the fragility of the engines, which can be highly susceptible to bumps and vibrations. Also, hydrogen is enormously expensive to store, and refuelling pumps are scarce.

The EV versus Fuel Cell debate hasn’t been in fuel cell’s favour recently, especially in the US, where Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, has come out forcefully against a viable future for the technology.

Intelligent Energy chief executive,  Henri Winaund, argues that it will be cheaper in the long run to develop a hydrogen fuel grid compared to electricity, as pumps can be built into existing petrol stations. EVs also face questions about infrastructure, such as the fact that many countries still produce most electricity from coal, the dirtiest fuel source, and grids would require huge upgrades to be able to cope with large-scale EV deployment.

For motorcycles, the lighter-weight fuel cell also has a distinct advantage over heavier EV battery alternatives. Several vehicle manufacturers, including GM, Honda and Toyota, have cited 2015 as the year that affordable hydrogen vehicles will start to come onto the market, and investment in infrastructure is picking up pace accordingly. Already, California has a nascent hydrogen network, with over 25 refueling stations; Germany has 30 and Sweden and Denmark are working to keep up with Norway, aiming to link up to create a Scandinavian highway. Japan is also investing heavily in infrastructure, hoping to have built up to 60 stations by 2015.

Now, encouraged by the Suzuki launch, London is scheduled to have at least six refueling points built in the run up to 2012, as well a fleet of fuel-cell taxis, buses and police cars planned for roll-out. By focusing on London’s commuters, the hope is that the practical case for developing a power grid for hydrogen is supported. Further backing in the UK came from energy minister Philip Hunt, who has laid out a £7m investment plan to fund a hydrogen highway along a stretch of motorway into Wales.

EVs are still favoured among policy-makers (See Cleaning up cars) and roll-out in the US and elsewhere is well-advanced. But Suzuki’s new scooter is a stylish ambassador for the hydrogen case.