How hydrogen-powered transport projects have advanced travel's future
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The test projects pushing hydrogen-powered transport forward

By Matthew Farmer 15 Sep 2020 (Last Updated November 18th, 2020 11:05)

Developing hydrogen demand is vital to growing new supply chains. We take a look at the hydrogen transport projects that will drive the emerging industry.

The test projects pushing hydrogen-powered transport forward
Alstom’s hydrogen-powered train, or ‘Wasserstoff-Zug’, will run on Austria’s un-electrified rail routes from this week. Credit: ÖBB/Marek Knopp.

During 2020, nations and companies have pushed more funding than ever towards developing hydrogen. Much of this has focused on ‘upstream’ hydrogen, developing new generation and distribution technologies.

Alongside this, power businesses assume other industries will develop a need for hydrogen, which is vital to growing new supply chains. We take a look at the hydrogen transport projects that will drive the emerging industry.

Planes: Difficult to decarbonise

Decarbonising aviation has proved difficult. Despite this, aerospace firms and airlines have committed millions in order to remove the growing pollution stigma around air travel.

As with all decarbonisation, engineers have to weigh up hydrogen against battery energy storage. But in the case of air travel, hydrogen’s low weight works in its favour. Per unit of mass, hydrogen contains three times more energy than jet fuel.

The EU certified the first small, battery-powered electric plane for worldwide use in June, after three years of development.

However, two months earlier, aeroplane manufacturer Airbus cancelled development of an experimental, medium-sized hybrid aircraft before the design ever flew. The company’s statement said that the project had ‘opened up inquiry into new technology pathways, hydrogen being one of them’.

In July, Airbus CEO Guillame Faury tweeted his support of the EU’s Hydrogen Strategy, which lays out development targets.

Separately, France has put $1.5bn towards developing alternative fuels for air travel, in an effort to create a zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. In August, airline SAS and the operators of Copenhagen airport contributed to a green hydrogen development scheme.

Edit: A few days after publication of this piece, Airbus announced a replacement project focusing on hydrogen power.

Trains: Hydrogen transport remains on track

On Monday, rail engineering company Alstom put its hydrogen-powered train into commercial service for first time. The train was designed by a French company, then tested for 18 months in Germany. It will now run on Austria’s rail network, where the national rail operator is considering whether to replace its diesel stock with the new design.

To mark the occasion, Alstom UK and Ireland managing director Nick Crossfield told Business Green that the UK could become a leader in hydrogen-powered rail, if the country’s government committed to the development.

The hydrogen train on roll-out day.
Copyright: ÖBB/Marek Knopp.

He said: “We’ve been working on this for three years. We are now at a point where we’ve done everything the government has asked us – engineering, proof of concept. With Eversholt, we’ve spent £2.5m jointly getting this in place. This is the point where the government needs to commit.”

The UK government aims to decarbonise its rail network by 2040. The UK’s relatively young fleet of trains has led Alstom to focus on retrofitting hydrogen technology onto existing diesel trains.

On rail networks, the weight comparison between hydrogen and batteries remains important, but hydrogen also has the advantage of greater range. In the UK, 58% of rail routes have no electricity supply, and fitting them with such a supply would in turn eliminate the need for batteries. In both the UK and Austria, rail operators have put their hope in hydrogen trains to run on un-electrified routes.

Alstom has also started work with a UK firm to develop a purpose-built hydrogen train there. Meanwhile, the company has already sold another 41 trains to German rail operators. Earlier this year, work began on the first hydrogen train refuelling station in Germany, as German cities look to decarbonise via their rail networks.

Automobiles: Creating hydrogen infrastructure for heavy goods transport

Germany has also led the way in developing infrastructure for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to use hydrogen as a fuel. In May, the massive vehicle groups Daimler and Volvo announced a joint venture to manufacture fuel cells for HGVs. Commercial vehicle manufacturer Scania started developing a fuel cell truck in 2018, and now these vehicles form the majority of some businesses’ fleets.

Scania head of new business concepts Hedvig Paradis said: “Different customers in different regions around the world will need different solutions, and hydrogen fuel cell technology can be one of those solutions. We can see for example in Japan, South Korea, and California that they are pushing for hydrogen-based solutions, and building hydrogen gas stations.”

Outside of commercial applications, Formula E has popularised electric car racing. Initially, the high-powered cars could not make it to the end of the race without running out of energy. This led to the thrilling spectacle of drivers needing to change car mid-race. However, more recent series have seen better technology and more careful driving prevail, with racers now able to stay seated throughout.

Mining machinery sees heavy investment

Williams Advanced Engineering worked with mining giant Anglo-American to develop a 290-ton hydrogen fuel cell haul truck. The truck uses a hybrid of fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries, making it the largest electric vehicle in the world.

Anglo-American heavy machinery
Anglo-American partnered with Engie to develop its hydrogen vehicles. Credit: Anglo-American.

Again, hydrogen has to make its case against energy storage. The 45-tonne ‘e-Dumper’ truck by Swiss firm eMining seems small by comparison, but in one use case it would only need overnight recharging for every three days of operations. Quarry mining operations require repeated hill climbs, and regenerative braking on the descents can recover power where hydrogen systems would struggle.

However, this portrays only one use case. As shown in the most recent edition of MINE magazine, several countries have moved to decarbonise their mining industries via hydrogen. This has led to Japanese giant Mitsui creating its own supply chain relying on a hydrogen production facility in Brunei. The company has invested in fuel cells, power storage, transportation, and backup power solutions.

The mining sector has significant wealth and power, but relies on several processes that remain relatively difficult to decarbonise. Because of this, companies have concentrated their efforts on decarbonising transport, meaning rapid hydrogen development from a sector that has historically not focused a great deal on its carbon emissions.