Will hydrogen ever deliver for transport?

Hydrogen-powered transport has never really got up to speed, not least because producing hydrogen is expensive, dirty or both. But there could still be a place for it

Home life sustainability mobility Will hydrogen ever deliver for transport?

Energy analysts have long had a soft spot for hydrogen. Its promise is as a clean energy source that can not only fuel transport, but also power homes and decarbonize energy-intensive industrial sectors.

Car companies such as Mercedes, Renault, Hyundai and Toyota have all made hydrogen-powered cars and vans that are available today, and there are also hydrogen-powered buses currently at work in cities across Europe, including the UK.

Many countries are investing in hydrogen. China has a national plan to build 1,000 hydrogen refuelling stations across the country by 2030, which would supply one million hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Germany, meanwhile, has a National Hydrogen Strategy with an eye on the automotive industry.

Ongoing challenges

But this exciting energy source has barriers that aren't coming down quickly enough – chiefly it is expensive and often polluting to produce and hard to store. Observers – and car manufacturers – are starting to doubt its potential for passenger cars. Leaving it, at best, as a partial solution for transport.

Where hydrogen does still have a strong case is as a transport fuel, not least because it is light. For vehicles that need massive power outputs, like buses, large trucks or even aircraft (and there is a disused hydrogen-powered Tupolev Tu-155 passenger jet sitting in an airport just outside Moscow), the weight of batteries may make electric engines impractical. Just for a small to medium-sized electric vehicle the batteries can be over 500kg, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the total vehicle weight.

Yet even in such weight-sensitive transport niches, hydrogen's other barriers need to be overcome. The cheapest form of the gas is grey hydrogen, made using fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which release CO2 into the air as they combust, and it is still costly at over $10 a kilo at a filling station. In most countries, filling a medium-sized, medium-range car with grey hydrogen costs around $120 at the pump. To be competitive as a mass-market energy source it has been estimated that prices would have to fall by at least a third.

A carbon-free future

More desirable – but also traditionally more expensive – is green hydrogen, produced by using renewable energy to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water, with zero emissions.

Recently, however, green hydrogen has been given a boost by advances in the renewable energy industry – particularly wind and solar – which has seen costs falling fast over the past decade, and likely to fall further.

That reminds us of something we've all seen before. History shows that the prices of commodities tend to fall over time. After all, in the 1870s the real inflation-adjusted price of oil was almost $150 a barrel, whereas this year the average price was around $40 a barrel (and at one point amid the coronavirus pandemic the price actually fell to less than zero).

Will prices come down to levels that make hydrogen economic, at least for those sorts of vehicles that need high power and can rely on their own refuelling infrastructure such as bus networks or airport-based airlines? The answer, it seems, is why not.