The hype surrounding hydrogen
Wednesday, 20 August, 2008
As fuel prices spike across the globe, many large transport manufacturers are in the stages of developing alternative fuel sources. According to reports, hydrogen is at the forefront of this development as it is an environmentally cleaner source of energy to end users, particularly in transportation applications, as it does not release pollutants or greenhouse gases. Michael McGowan, chairman of the National Hydrogen Association (USA), head of Hydrogen Solutions, North America, BOC & Linde Gas and global expert in liquid and compressed hydrogen fuelling systems, was recently in Australia, where he spoke to Sustainability Matters about the latest developments in hydrogen fuel cells.
SM: How good is hydrogen as an alternative fuel?
MMcG: Hydrogen is the ultimate alternative fuel. It is the only fuel that truly offers the promise of emission-free energy. It also has the ability to be produced from such a wide variety of sources. The current problems with energy and supply of that energy, is that it is coming from areas of the world that are not very stable. If we have the ability to produce fuel locally, it makes it an increasingly reliable fuel cell.
SM: What type of sources is it derived from?
MMcG: Currently, if we look at industrial hydrogen, the main source of that is natural gas and when we say natural gas, in fact, half of that is water because it's steam methane reforming. So, half of the hydrogen comes from methane and the other half comes from the water. There are also forms of production around electrolysis, where you can produce electricity renewably, whether it is solar (or photovoltaic), wind, wave, geothermal or nuclear; there are just a host of ways to produce electricity that is ultimately used to make the hydrogen.
SM: What type of companies are interested in using this as a fuel source?
MMcG: The mega application is transportation. That is the golden egg everyone is striving for because of the number of vehicles used across the world. Auto manufacturers are increasingly interested in the fuel cell vehicle and there are plans for California to have a couple of thousand in the Los Angeles area by 2012/2014, with plans to add more vehicles over time.
We are also looking at applications for commercial vehicles like forklift trucks. By replacing the batteries with a hydrogen fuel cell the performance is far superior to what the battery offers. The operability of the truck is better, the productivity of the truck is better and the ability to fuel the truck is better, as you don't have any of the disposal problems you have with batteries.
Other applications, like back-up power to which hydrogen is very well suited, are also beginning to get into the first commercial applications. The environmental benefits are very good and important but, it’s actually an addition to the current performance that is being seen straight away.
SM: Honda has recently looked into this area for commercial production but there have been issues with infrastructure. What are the issues?
MMcG: A lot of the time people think that alternative-fuelled vehicles are a compromise in that you’ll give up a little bit of performance, you’ll give up some functionality, all for the benefit of a greener car. If you see the Honda Clarity, it is a beautiful car. It's a car that no one would feel like they were sacrificing anything to be driving. It’s proven that the technology is not only sustainable, it can actually add to the performance of the car.
Within the industry we often refer to the chicken and egg problem. It’s normal for companies that have got obligations with existing business and shareholders to want to make wise investments. Energy companies are questioning whether or not they build these service stations: will there be enough cars? Can we justify that investment? Car companies are trying to make sound investments; will our customers want an alternative-fuelled vehicle if they have trouble getting fuel? Both parties are committed to finding a solution to it and finding ways to compromise. At the moment, the interest is to cluster the vehicles into one area, like Los Angeles, and build sufficient stations in that area. Companies can then get a real feel for how viable this is, which will prove to the world the promise of hydrogen.
It’s making progress and I think it’s normal growing pains. If we really have these sustainability goals of zero emissions with vehicles, then there really is only one solution and that is the hydrogen fuel cell. The hydrogen engine gets very close to zero emissions. Biofuels and plug-in batteries serve a purpose and they are improvements but, we can't get distracted from the ultimate answer and the answer is solutions. We don't discount other solutions as it helps us get to that ultimate sustainable solution which is what we all want but, we are also aware that we can’t get distracted. If the public wants a zero-emission answer, then we have to stay focused on how we make hydrogen infrastructure real.
SM: How important is it to have government support?
MMcG: Funding helps financially and it shows that the government is supportive. Encouragement works but we need more of it. Mandates could be required but, there is definitely a role for government to work with industry, after all, we are all pointing in the same direction.
SM: Are there issues with refuelling infrastructure and production?
MMcG: If you looked at the status quo, we have issues around all of these areas. There have been challenges on all fronts, but progress has been made on all of them. Years ago, it was claimed that you could not produce hydrogen in a commercially viable way that the public would accept. If a market is created, then industries will find solutions. If we can get vehicles up to volumes that make them commercially interesting, there will be fuel providers and station operators that are going to come up with the solutions. We have them now, but they are only going to improve. It’s amazing the progress we have made in such a short time.
SM: How do you change consumer behaviour?
MMcG: By getting cars out there. GM has a program called Project Driveway and we are doing something similar. We are getting people to touch, feel and use the vehicle. By doing this people realise they are safe, reliable and fun to use, and that their driving experience is enhanced. A year or two ago, people were asking — when are they going to be available? But recently, with spiking fuel prices, people are saying, we need them. The perception has changed from ‘that would be nice’ to ‘we need this’.
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