Kevin Kendall pulls up at the only green hydrogen refueling station in Birmingham, Britain’s second-biggest city, and swiftly fills his sedan with clean gas.
Green hydrogen is in sharp focus as British governments seek to slash carbon emissions amid record-high temperatures and to safeguard energy supplies hit by the invasion of Ukraine by oil and gas producer Russia.
However, the “hydrogen economy” has not fully kicked into gear awaiting significant uptake from high-polluting sectors such as steel and aviation.
For Kendall, being an early user of green hydrogen means he does not have to line up during his lunchtime trip to what resembles a gasoline pump.
“There is very little green hydrogen being produced in Britain at the moment,” the professor of chemical engineering said. “It needs now to move forward.”
In Birmingham it costs about ￡50 (US$60) to fill Kendall’s Toyota Mirai with the green hydrogen that is produced at a plant next to the refueling station.
That is about half the bill for a similar-sized diesel car after the Ukraine war sent prices rocketing for fossil fuels.
Despite the price benefit, Britain is home to about only a dozen hydrogen refueling stations.
While hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, it is locked in water and hydrocarbons such as natural gas, meaning “it’s difficult to make,” said Kendall’s daughter, Michaela Kendall.
Together they founded Adelan Ltd, a small business producing box-shaped fuel cells similar to the metal-encased devices used to help power the Toyota Mirai.
Set up 26 years ago, Adelan is the longest-running maker of fuel cells in Britain — which work also with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — while the company also offers a leasing service for the Japanese automaker’s hydrogen vehicles.
“Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the economics of green hydrogen have become increasingly attractive,” said Minh Khoi Le, head of hydrogen research at Rystad Energy. “Coupled with many incentives in the second half of 2022 globally, green hydrogen looks to satisfy the trilemma of the energy system: energy security, affordability, and sustainability.”
Fallout from the war has caused the EU to bolster its gas reserves by slashing consumption by 15 percent.
The bloc is also seeking to significantly increase supplies of green hydrogen, which is made from water via electrolysis and with renewable energy. This is in contrast to the more available blue hydrogen, which environmentalists oppose, as it is produced from natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide.
At Adelan’s Birmingham workshop, a quaint brick building surrounded by houses, staff are testing the company’s so-called solid oxide fuel cells that are replacing diesel generators.
Overseeing the work, company chief executive Michaela Kendall says she expects “hydrogen capacity to really increase but it will take time.”
“Hydrocarbons will still be used for the foreseeable future,” she said, “because the hydrogen economy has not really evolved, it’s just at the early stage.”
The government says that ￡9 billion of investment is needed “to make hydrogen a cornerstone of the UK’s greener future” as it targets net zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century.
In Birmingham, the plan is for about 10 hydrogen refueling stations in the next few years following the arrival of 120 hydrogen buses to the city. Other UK cities, including Aberdeen in Scotland, are traveling the same road.
However, “only Los Angeles has been reasonably successful with something like 9,000 hydrogen vehicles and 40 hydrogen stations,” said Kevin Kendall. “That’s what we’d like Birmingham to be.”
The Toyota, resembling a standard vehicle inside and out, is powered by electricity. This has been produced by green hydrogen combining with oxygen in a fuel cell.
The only waste emitted from the vehicle, which has a range of 640km, is water vapor.
Adelan’s solid oxide fuel cell, so-called because its electrolyte is ceramic, is described as “an electric device,” generating power for batteries.
“It’s hydrogen-ready, but we tend to use hydrocarbon fuels because they’re easier to get right now,” Michaela Kendall said.
“We use fuel that is sourced in a low-carbon way” such as BioLPG, she said.
A lack of hydrogen infrastructure means motorists wanting a greener alternative to gasoline or diesel are expected to continue purchasing electric vehicles.
Despite lengthy charge times for batteries of electric vehicles and big rises in electricity prices this year, Britons are fast ditching polluting automobiles ahead of a UK ban on sales of new diesel and gasoline vehicles from 2030.
It comes as oil and gas giant BP recently unveiled plans for green hydrogen production facilities in the UK.
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