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Can the low carbon economies of tomorrow really do without Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology?

Contributor: James Gordon
Posted: 04/05/2017
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At first glance they couldn’t be more different – one is a global nexus for financial and professional services, where fortunes are won and lost in plush, air conditioned offices; the other a city which owes its wealth to the thousands of men and women who make a living extracting the ‘black gold’ deep beneath the icy cold, gunmetal-grey waters surrounding it.

But, while the lives of an offshore driller and a city trader couldn’t be more different, these two mercantile cities, which they have been drawn to, have much in common.

Take energy policy for example. While the North Sea oil beds still supply the UK with around 60 per cent of its oil and gas, a large proportion of which is used to supply the nation’s cars and buses, both Aberdeen and London are two urban centres firmly committed to a low carbon future.

But with electric and hybrid vehicles very much at the heart of a future low emissions landscape, in striving for a low carbon economies cities, both London and Aberdeen, have embraced an alternative zero emission technology. They have become trailblazers for hydrogen fuel cells vehicles.

Take Aberdeen for instance. It has the largest hydrogen-fuel cell bus fleet in Europe and the UK’s largest hydrogen production and bus refuelling station. But Scotland’s third city has been keen to expand this innovative zero emission hydrogen infrastructure and opened its second hydrogen refuelling station in February. And just last week, it announced that it would be doubling its hydrogen fuel-cell bus fleet with a further 10 buses. But, a spokeswoman for the council confirmed that no date has been set for the roll-out of the buses, which will supplied by Belgian manufacturer, Van Hool.

aberdeenbusses

Astonishingly, since the UK£19 million Aberdeen Hydrogen Bus Project came into being in March, 2015, these ten archetypal white-roofed buses have ferried nearly 600,000 passengers around the city covering 440,000 miles in the process.

The buses, the majority of which travel on the X17 and X40 routes, are a riot of blue and green. The ten buses, which are operated by Stagecoach UK (six buses) and First Group UK (four buses) may look the same as their conventionally-powered counterparts, but there are some differences.

Stagecoach UK Bus Engineering Director Sam Greer says "As with many other modern buses, hydrogen vehicles provide a very comfortable journey for the passenger with smooth braking and acceleration. Probably the biggest difference for customers is not hearing the engine sound they'll be used to when travelling on most other buses."

SamGreer

And, First Aberdeen Commercial Manager Daniel Laird, adds, “The hydrogen vehicles are an important part of our drive to introduce cleaner vehicles, improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and improve air quality. 

“The (Aberdeen) hydrogen buses project demonstrates the potential for zero carbon transport and we’re pleased that participation in the project is gathering vital data to aid in the development of new vehicle technologies.”

A London bus route offering the world an exciting glimpse of the future…

Nearly 650 kilmetres south of the Granite City, in London, eight red single-decker buses, operating on the RV1 route, which takes in many of the capital’s most iconic landmarks including Covent Garden and Tower Bridge, are also using hydrogen-fuel cell technology.

And with the UK government announcing a new UK£23 million fund to increase hydrogen vehicle and infrastructure last month, coupled with London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, vowing to rid London of all diesel fuelled buses by 2018, we could see around 300 zero emission buses by 2020 – some of which will be powered by hydrogen.

But it is not just environmentally-minded British cities that are embracing zero emission fleets. Further afield, large American cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco (1)  have also pledged to cleanse their cities of diesel propelled buses by 2020, while Paris, Madrid and Mexico City will decommission theirs by 2025 (2).

Potential infrastructure roadblocks…

However, there are barriers to entry which threaten the emergence of hydrogen as a credible and commercially viable fuel source – especially for passenger vehicles. Globally, the high cost of materials required to make fuel-cells, and a lack of hydrogen fuel station infrastructure needs to be urgently addressed if the technology is to be universalised.

There is a long way to go. According to figures provided by the Society of Motor Manufacturers (SMMT), 2,603,867 conventional fuelled vehicles and 10,264 pure battery electric vehicles were sold in the UK last year.  However, astonishingly just 10 hydrogen fuel cell cars (4) were registered in United Kingdom in 2016. 

And infrastructure figures make for equally bleak reading, especially when you compare the number of hydrogen refilling stations to EV charging outlets. In the UK, for instance, according to the Zap-Map database, as of April 2017, there were 6,650 publicly-available EV charging point units, but just eight hydrogen refuelling stations.

However, in France, one pioneering and enterprising company, Symbio which designs, manufactures and sells fuel cell vehicles and kits, has turned this intractable and seemingly insoluble problem into an opportunity. 

A hybrid solution?

Speaking from his offices in Paris, Pierre-Yves Le Berre, VP of Symbio, says, “When Symbio was created in 2010, there was a lot of scepticism in regards to hydrogen as a fuel source which could effectively contribute to a low-carbon economy. Many made the mistake of comparing hydrogen fuel cell cars to electric and hybrid vehicles. We saw things differently. We realised that in terms of infrastructure - where there are only a handful of hydrogen refuelling points compared to thousands of BEV charging stations –it was nonsensical. While the doubters were perhaps right that the world wasn’t yet ready for a hydrogen fuel cell revolution, it could certainly embrace a hybrid model. Our vision and strategy, therefore, was to harmonise the technologies. So we began integrating bespoke, state-of-the-art fuel cell kit systems into electric cars, vans and buses.”

Mr Le Berre, who has just returned from Tokyo’s biggest fuel cell event, where he demonstrated Symbio’s latest fuel cell integration innovation – a customised Nissan van, says, “The converted e-NV200, which is a plug-in hybrid fuel cell vehicle, can deliver over 500 kilometres of range. It takes just three minutes for the driver to re-fuel the vehicle. Thanks to the hydrogen fuel cell, the car can travel 330 additional kilometres in addition to the 170 kilometres the van electric battery provides”.

Continues Mr Le Berre, “One of the major benefits of this technology is its weight saving potential. We have conducted some tests both in the lab and on real-life providing grounds, and we calculated that to construct a BEV with a battery powerful enough to match the range of the e-NV200 H2, the vehicle would weigh 400 kgs – twice the weight of the e-NV200. This would mean reducing the payload to just one passenger.”

Symbio has also fitted and adapted the technology to the Renault Kangoo ZE-H2, which has a range of 250 miles – 150 miles from its hydrogen fuel-cell and a further 100 miles through its lithium-ion battery. And the French start-up is also working on a hydrogen fuel-cell electric bus.

renault_kangoo

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles – how they work…

So what is the science behind this hybrid model?

Mr Le Berre explains, “While the fuel-cell has been specially designed for each vehicle, in theory it works like any other fuel cell. A fuel cell supplied with hydrogen and oxygen, converts chemical energy into electrical energy. Therefore, a fuel cell continuously supplied with hydrogen and oxygen taken from air can generate electricity to power a vehicle. This can be explained by an electrochemical reaction, according to the equation:  2 H2 + O2 = 2 H2O.

Continues Mr Le Berre, “Hydrogen fuel cells are electrochemical cells. They have two electrodes in contact with a material that can conduct proton, called an electrolyte. One electrode is the anode and the other is the cathode. The electrodes in hydrogen fuel cells are relatively stable since they act as catalysts in the proton and the electrons exchange. Therefore, when pure hydrogen is used as the fuel, the only by-products generated from the fuel cell are pure water and heat. This makes fuel cells potentially very efficient devices with no environmental impact.”

But Mr Le Berre, who worked for telecommunications equipment companies, NetCentrex and Anevia before joining Symbio, is keen not to place too much emphasis on the fuel cell system design, which he says represents only a small part of the engineering.

Says Mr Le Berre, “If you were to look at one of our hybrids for the first time, you could be forgiven for wondering why we have spent years and EUR€6 million developing the technology. Indeed, to the untrained eye, the lithium-ion battery and fuel cell, which are housed in a 0.074 metre cubed black box directly behind the driver’s seat, does not look extraordinary. Once we developed the technology, the major part of the investment was spent on the industrialisation of the kit, on developing a supply chain, and ensuring that each section of the chain conforms to stringent automotive standards. Meeting strict European homologation requirements and, finally, deploying state-of-art aftercare services, also were critically important steps in preparing the vehicle for market.”

Continues Mr Le Berre, "But that would be to miss the point. What sets this technology apart is integration. When our engineers began work on both the Kangoo ZE and the eNV200, they realised from concept design work on the Renault Maxity (a light weight-truck), that it was not a case of simply retro-fitting our fuel-cell hybrid technology into the vehicle. We had to strip the prototype model down to its very foundations and create and develop a new logic of hybrid battery and fuel cell. The key was to harmonise the flow of energy between the fuel-cell and the battery, taking into account the cycle usage of the vehicle.”

And with a multitude of highly complex and circuitous supporting systems required to make the hybrid fuel cell technology work, Mr Le Berre and his team created bespoke real-time systems to make sure that the software and hardware was functioning powerfully, effectively and efficiently.

“We realised that interoperability was the key. We needed to ensure that all the software components and information coming from the vehicle (fault data, vehicle patterns and performances) were collected and transmitted to a central supervision system (though a 4G WiFi system). This leading-edge technology enabled our software engineers to solve problems, make improvements, download new software version and contribute to the fast experience curve acquisition.”

But perhaps the greatest challenge for Mr Le Berre and the 40 engineers, who worked on the project, was ensuring that each components used in this trailblazing system not only conformed to stringent EU vehicle regulations, but also the requirements for hydrogen fuel cell standard, set by the SAE International, a US-based globally recognised standards agency including (but not limited to) SAE J2579, SAE J2601, ISO 11119, ISO/TS 146 87-2:2008 and EC79/2009.

Mr Le Berre continues, “Gaining global homologation accreditation for the Renault Kangoo ZE-H2, which we achieved in 2014, has been a rigorous and exacting process. There was a myriad of requirements which our integrated fuel cell system needed to meet, including temperature, flow rate and pressure testing and fuel supply and storage trials, before we could sell the vehicle.  

“The technology also had to undergo a series of tough safety assessments including hydrogen sensor tests, electro-magnetic compatibility testing, crash integrity trials and fire and explosion resistance testing. In this respect, we worked in parallel with the fire safety team, and carried out a series of rigorous testing to ensure that the engine design of the vehicle conformed to stringent industry standards.  

“Therefore, to conform to these strict codes, it was absolutely imperative to carry out a raft of tests in our state-of-the-art laboratory, on real-life proving grounds (in France) and in crash test centres (also in France).”

With the Nissan eNV200 close to achieving approval, Mr Le Berre reveals that Symbio is “working closely with two OEMs with global-reach, and is in talks with a further two regarding potential collaboration”.

Nissan

Confirms Mr Le Berre, “In the coming years, we are planning to produce 1,000 Nissan eNV200 vehicles and over 1,000 Renault Kangoo ZE-H2 vans. Symbio will supply vans to France and mainland Europe, while Arcola Energy will provide sales support in the UK.” And Mr Le Berre does not believe that the target price of EUR€55,000 (UK£47, 590), (USD$59,290), (before subsidies) “will restrict sales amongst the intensive usage segment Symbio is targeting”.

Explains Mr Le Berre, “We are focusing our efforts on the light commercial vehicle sector and the traditional taxi and private hire industry. While a brand new hybrid vehicle is today around twenty thousand euros (before a government grant) is cheaper than one of our vehicles, we have conducted research, which shows, that in terms of the Total Cost of Ownership, the gulf in price narrows considerably. Why? Because a fuel cell requires very little maintenance compared to an internal combustion engine (ICE). 

“From a capital expenditure perspective too, the annual government subsidies continue for the entire lifetime of the vehicle. Finally, through our partnership with Michelin, we enjoy a close relationship with Euromaster, which has extensive experience in maintaining fuel-cells.”

Countering Hydrogen Fuel-Cell degradation…

But are the running costs really cheaper than that of a vehicle with an ICE? A traditional barrier to entry, which has stymied the growth of hydrogen powered cars, centres on the fact that fuel cells deteriorate quickly and are difficult and costly to renew and replace. So does this potential obstacle concern Mr Le Berre?

“No, not at all,” he says confidently. “Maybe that was the case when the technology was first rolled-out. But there have been huge improvements and technological advancements since the start of the decade. However, we wanted to empirically prove that this was the case. Therefore, we carried out extensive research, which revealed that most Kangoos are withdrawn from service after they have accumulated 200,000 kilometres. But, our fuel cells last a lot longer. They have a life-span of 400,000 kilometres.”

Infrastructure headache…

But there is one major hurdle which even Mr Le Berre is struggling to negotiate. “Infrastructure, or a lack of it, is a stumbling block which is currently stunting and hindering hydrogen-fuel cell development in terms of the commercial vehicle market. In France, for example, we only have 16 hydrogen filling stations. However, there are more than a hundred projects underway, which will see more stations open in France” he says.

But it is not just France that is suffering from a lack of refuelling terminals. The global hydrogen refuelling landscape is equally under developed.

According to the European Alternative Fuels Observatory, there are just 79 fully operational hydrogen filling stations in Europe, 54 in the USA, and just eight in the UK (5).

So what is holding back hydrogen refuelling infrastructure? Anil Valsan, EY’s Global Automotive and Transportation Lead Analyst, says, “Hydrogen refuelling stations are still very niche. The infrastructure requires high cost and time before it becomes fully operational. Secondly, fuel station operators have little interest in building additional stations until there are more fuel cell vehicles on the road.”

But Valsan, says that “generous government incentives in Norway, Japan, Germany and the UK are helping hydrogen fuel infrastructure to gain some traction”. 

Valsan says, “Norway is expected to be the first country in the world to have all its major cities covered by hydrogen stations.

“Germany is also investing heavily in the filing stations. It has built 18 hydrogen refuelling points under the H2 Mobility initiative, while Daimler and industrial gas manufacturers, Linde Group, have just committed EUR€20 million to constructing 20 more units.

“In Asia, Japan has a target to double the number of hydrogen refuelling points from 80 to 160 by the end of 2020, and by 2025, the number of filling stations will double again to 320.

“Finally, large companies are starting to see the benefits of the technology.  For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, a consortium of 13 companies including OEMs, oil companies and infrastructure providers, plan to invest USD$ 10 billion over the next five years on hydrogen related products,” he adds.

While there are tangible and real signs that governments and industry are beginning to invest in the technology, it may be some time yet before the hydrogen filling station becomes a regular part of the global energy mix. 

For Valsan, in terms of infrastructure, there are still many answered questions – particularly around distribution and transmission.

“Hydrogen can be produced either at the refuelling station itself or can be transported from centralised production plants through gaseous truck transport, liquefied truck transport or through pipelines. But, there will need to be cross-industry collaboration stretching over various geographies.”

Back in Paris, Symbio Vice President, Pierre Yves Le Berre, explains the innovative tactics that his company has adopted to overcome the problem of a lack of infrastructure.

Mr Le Berre says, “We have established an almost symbiotic relationship with the French multi-national electric utility company, Engie. The business strategy that we have adopted is to sell our vehicles primarily to logistics operators with captive fleets. For example, companies whose vehicles exhibit predictable driving and refuelling patterns on a daily basis. When it has been calculated that there is a specific number of our vehicles in one location, as part of our blueprint, we will then liaise with Engie, which will build a hydrogen refuelling station. Globally, given that there is a paucity of infrastructure, we think that this strategy will bear fruit,” he adds.

Pierre

Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology – the future…

But if hydrogen fuel cell technologies ever become a focal part of our global energy system, and refuelling stations are commercially rolled-out, will there be a place for the FCEV? Won’t consumers want to buy a one hundred percent hydrogen fuel-cell passenger vehicle, like the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai ix35, or the Honda Clarity, none of which require a range-extending battery?

Says Mr Le Berre, “I believe that FCVs are the future, but it will take at least a decade for regulators, OEMs, oil & gas companies to streamline their activities and create a sustainable and long-lasting infrastructure before this exciting paradigm can be realised. The hybrid technology that Symbio is creating represent the first and most important steps of this journey.

Continues Mr Le Berre. “Many of the OEMs are following a similar route to that of Symbio. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, has developed the GLC F-Cell, a passenger vehicle, which also has a combined range of 500 kilometres. The only difference being that the nine kWh lithium-ion discharge battery pack, which has a range of just 30 miles, is mostly deployed as an additional power source.”

Anil Valsan, who has been following the rise of the technology for the last decade, forecasts “a rise in Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) take-up in the next ten years, but thinks the long-term future of the technology is uncertain”.

“There are only three FCEVs currently available for consumers to purchase/lease, and they are only available in selective markets. By 2027, however, the number of available FCEVs is expected to jump to 17, as more OEMs add them to their product portfolios. 

“But beyond 2030, if the technology fails to advance beyond the early adopter phase in the next 20-25 years, FCEVs are likely to remain in niche applications,” he adds.

And if the one hundred percent hydrogen-fuel cell business model succeeds in snuffing out the FCEV completely, to what extent can Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) prove critics wrong – high-profile doubters like Elon Musk for instance - who refuse to believe that it can ever compete with electric vehicles?

Says Valsan, “Even the most optimistic forecasts for adoption indicate the FCV market share will be less than 0.5% by 2030 and between 1.5% to 3% by 2040. And those figures are firmly premised on technological advances taking place. That said, there has been continuous improvement in the cell technology to reduce cost and improve ranges.” 

And Iain Mowat, a senior Oil Demand analyst from Wood Mackenzie, and an expert on energy infrastructure development, also remains unconvinced that hydrogen fuel cell technology can ever challenge the battery electric vehicle market.

“With the majority of OEMs firmly focused on the further commercialisation of BEVs based on lithium ion battery technology, Toyota, has taken the unprecedented step in investing heavily in HFC technology. While HFC cars do not suffer from range anxiety and refuelling is a lot faster than re-charging a BEV, HFC technology remains very expensive. It also remains unclear whether it will ever become cost competitive with BEVs. Moreover, hydrogen fuel is still likely to be derived from a hydrocarbon source, as the electrolysis of water is too energy intensive to ever become cost competitive." 

Meanwhile…

In Paris, Symbio has begun work on a hybrid plug-in hydrogen bus.

Pierre-Yves Le Berre explains, “The bus, which will be fitted with an 85KWH lithium-ion battery. A 20kW hydrogen range extender will allow the nine metre vehicle to travel a distance of 170 kilometres on hydrogen, and a further 80 kilometres on an electric battery. We are currently in talks with several OEMs, and hope to roll-out buses in the near future.”

Cities striving to mimic the achievements of Aberdeen, the hydrogen bus capital of Europe, may wish to take note…

End notes

(1)

Mayor of London press release

Sadiq to stop buying dirtiest diesel buses and unveils hydrogen bus

30, November, 2016

https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/sadiq-to-stop-buying-di...

(2)

BBC news website

Four major cities move to ban diesel vehicles by 2025

By Matt McGrath

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38170794

(3)

Please note this figure is for cars sold in the UK only. It does not include buses, hydrogen fuelled ICE vehicles and range extended vehicles

(4)

Statistic obtained from the Synnogy Ltd., the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. While there are currently eight fully operational hydrogen filling stations in the UK, a further seven stations are currently being built.

James Gordon
Contributor: James Gordon