Hydrogen and fuel cells

Hydrogen vehicles hold the promise of curing the world’s oil dependency while making transport-related air pollution and CO2 emissions history. But sceptics point out that hydrogen is clean only if produced from renewable sources of energy.

Transport accounts for some 71% of all oil consumption in the EU, with the automotive sector alone dependent on oil at 98%, according to the European Commission.

To reduce oil dependency, the Commission has set out an objective to substitute 20% of traditional automotive fuels with alternatives by the year 2020 (Green Paper: Towards a European Strategy for the Security of Energy Supply, 2000).

A year later, it presented a communication on alternative fuels, identifying three of them as the most promising: biofuels, natural gas and hydrogen (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

Hydrogen has many benefits:

  • It is the most abundant element on earth;
  • it is a versatile energy carrier that can be produced from any source of energy;
  • it would reduce oil dependency, and bring transport-related air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions to virtually none, and;
  • it can be stored and easily kept over time. 

Together with biofuels, hydrogen has been identified by the Commission as one of the main candidates to replace oil in transport uses and reduce Europe's oil dependency. 

However, after the early enthusiasm, critics were quick to point to the "illusions" of the hydrogen economy:

  • Like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. In other words, the hydrogen economy will only be as clean as the original energy source it is made from (coal, nuclear, natural gas, or renewables);
  • a hydrogen-based transport system requires a network of fuelling stations that will cost vast sums of money to set up. In a study published in December last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said trillions of dollars will be needed to develop infrastructure before the widespread use of hydrogen (EURACTIV 2/12/05);
  • fuel-cell batteries that convert hydrogen into electricity through a chemical reaction have limited efficiency and storage capacity with power losses being made in the hydrogen-electricity conversion process, and;
  • fuel-cell batteries are still highly expensive (around €10,000 for a medium-sized vehicle), due to the materials used in their manufacture. These include platinum and Nafion, an acid membrane used in the electrolyte of fuel cells. 

Public and private R&D efforts have therefore focused on reducing the cost of fuel cells, increasing their storage capacity and on finding ways to build up new infrastructure at the cheapest cost.

In the US, the Bush administration has earmarked $1.8 billion over five years for a Hydrogen Fuel Initiative and a complementary FreedomCAR project. The EU, the US and other partners are working together in an "International partnership for the hydrogen economy".

At European level, a Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP) was launched in 2004 to accelerate research and deployment of hydrogen technologies. Led by industry, the platform brings together public and private researchers as well as public authorities and the financial community.

In March 2005, the platform presented a Strategic Research Agenda to direct research and to encourage public and private investment in targeted R&D programmes (EURACTIV 17/03/05). The programme targets commercialisation of vehicles in 2015 but many think that they will not become competitive before 2020 at the earliest.

Several EU-funded pilot projects have also been launched to show the viability of hydrogen fuel cells in public transport. Called "Clean Urban Transport for Europe" (CUTE), the EU programme helped power 27 hydrogen-fuel cell public buses in nine European cities, from Amsterdam to Barcelona. The project, the results of which were presented in May this year (EURACTIV 11/05/05), showed that improvements still needed to be made in areas such as:

  • Design, construction and operation of safe hydrogen supply chains and refuelling stations;
  • efficient production and use of tonnes of hydrogen, and;
  • infrastructure optimisation. 

"The question is no longer whether this technology works, but when it will be competitive," Energy Commissioner Andris Pielbags said as he unveiled the result of the CUTE project.

In 2005, a group of MEPs presented a Green Hydrogen Charter urging the EU to mobilise all forces to shift to a hydrogen economy by 2025. MEPs clearly expressed themselves in favour of a hydrogen economy based on renewables (EURACTIV 13/09/05).

But hydrogen also faces a number of criticismsUlf Bossel of the European Fuel Cell Forum, an organisation that supports technical and scientific advances on fuel cells, challenges what he calls 'the hydrogen illusion'. His main arguments are:

  • If a hydrogen-based economy becomes a reality, it will be characterised by a massive increase in demand for electric power, which Bossel says is unlikely to be met by renewables alone. According to Bossel, a substantial part of the increase will therefore need to come from coal-fired or nuclear power plants with all the known consequences for the environment and for safety;
  • a substantial amounts of energy is lost when the electricity is converted to hydrogen for storage in a fuel cell and subsequently converted back into electricity. "About three quarters of the original energy is lost for electrolysis, compression or liquefaction, transportation, storage, transfer and re-conversion back to electricity with fuel cells," the Fuel Cell Forum said.

Energy major ExxonMobil says producing hydrogen from renewables poses other challenges. "With limited supplies of renewables in the coming decades, it is reasonable to ask whether the use of renewables to produce hydrogen for transportation would be the best use of those resources." According to ExxonMobil, this is because a unit of wind or solar energy that is used to displace coal in power generation saves 2.5 times more CO2 than using the same unit to replace gasoline with hydrogen.

Other criticisms relate to the environmental impacts of using hydrogen in the transport sector. In a recent review of scientific studies, British researchers found that contrary to most expectations, hydrogen is an indirect greenhouse gas with a potential global warming effect.

The researchers, led by Richard Derwent from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, said this occurs because emissions of hydrogen lead to increased burdens of methane and ozone and hence to an increase in global warming. However, they said that the climate effects would still be considerably less than in a fossil fuel economy.

However, hydrogen promoters say the biggest challenge is financial, not technical. "From a vehicle perspective, funding the transition from expensive prototypes to affordable mass production will be the key issue," says Shell Hydrogen.

Moreover, Shell argues that fuel-cell vehicles are just as efficient, if not more efficient, than conventional engines. "Internal-combustion engines in today's automobiles convert less than 30% of the energy in gasoline into power that moves the vehicle. Vehicles using electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells are much more energy efficient, utilising 40-60% of the fuel's energy," Shell points out.

Shell estimates that Fuel Cell Vehicles can become competitive when annual production reaches one million globally. "Through the combination of the technical and manufacturing advances anticipated over the next five years, with the build-up of a reasonable global production over the following five to ten years, we believe attractive and affordable fuel cell vehicles can become a commercial reality," it says.

  • 19 Jan. 2007: Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP) endorses implementation plan.
  • 28 March 2007: HFP sets up association as a first step towards a European public-private partnership (Joint Technology Initiative - JTI) on hydrogen and fuel cells.
  • 21 May 2007:  Parliament adopts written declaration on establishing a green hydrogen economy and a third industrial revolution including a de-centralised hydrogen infrastructure in all member states by 2025.
  • By end 2007: JTI expected to be launched with activities due to start in 2008.

Subscribe to our newsletters