The Emerging Hydrogen Market

Hydrogen energy is gaining attention in the UK. However, the economy of this energy source remains embryonic.
renewable hydrogen

Kevin Kendall stopped his vehicle at the only green hydrogen station in Birmingham, central England, and refueled with the fuel produced exclusively from renewable energy.

This gas, the lightest element in the universe, is the object of all attention in the United Kingdom, which is trying to secure its energy supplies since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the face of the climate emergency after the record high temperatures this summer.

However, at the pump, which looks just like the ones that distribute gasoline, there is no crowd. The hydrogen economy is still in its infancy, even though its players hope to see it become established one day in highly polluting sectors such as the steel industry and aviation.

Price of a full tank of gas for the professor’s Toyota Mirai: 50 pounds (about 60 euros), half the price of a diesel vehicle of similar size, due to the soaring price of hydrocarbons with the war in Ukraine.

Despite these low rates, the country only hosts about a dozen refueling points. “There is very little green hydrogen produced in Britain at the moment,” Kendall, a professor of chemical engineering, tells AFP, who would like to see the gas “move forward.”

He and his daughter Michaela founded a small company called Adelan, which has been producing fuel cells, a device that converts hydrogen energy into electricity, for 26 years. This is the process used for example to propel Mr. Kendall’s car.

Green, blue, grey hydrogen…

The problem is that hydrogen is difficult to obtain. The most abundant element on earth is not available in its pure state but is trapped in water and hydrocarbons such as natural gas.

Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis, i.e. the separation of oxygen and hydrogen from water by means of an electric current, itself obtained with the help of renewable energy.

Other manufacturing methods exist, much more common, but they emit greenhouse gases, such as “grey” hydrogen, from natural gas, or “blue” with the same technique with a capture of part of the CO2.

“Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, green hydrogen has become increasingly attractive,” as it could help solve the difficult equation between energy security, affordability and sustainability, Minh Khoi Le, hydrogen research manager at Rystad Energy, tells AFP.

The European Union, which has been forced to reduce its gas consumption by 15% to compensate for the reduction in Russian deliveries, is also looking to significantly increase its supplies of green hydrogen.

The British government, which is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, estimates that £9 billion of investment will be needed “to make hydrogen the cornerstone” of its plan to green the country.

In this context, ten new hydrogen stations will be set up in Birmingham in the coming years, after the planned introduction next year of 120 buses running on this fuel.

“Stammering”

In Adelan’s Birmingham workshop, a typical English red-brick building set in the middle of a residential area, employees test fuel cells. These are not intended for cars but are designed to replace diesel generators.

The company’s general manager, Michaela Kendall, is overseeing the work. “It will take time” to see hydrogen’s potential truly grow, she said, because this market “is still in its infancy.”

She believes that hydrocarbons still have a long way to go. The Adelan fuel cell is designed to run on hydrogen, but it can also be powered by hydrocarbon-based fuels, which are more widely used because “they are easier to obtain at the moment,” explains Michaela Kendall. The company, it specifies, is supplied
particularly in biofuels.

Professor Kendall’s car looks like a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle, with a range of about 650 kilometers, but with one major difference: it emits only water vapor, the result of the recomposition of hydrogen with oxygen from the air, the reaction that produces electricity in the fuel cell.

The UK has set a 2030 deadline for banning new gasoline and diesel vehicle sales in the country, but due to a lack of infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles, electric cars and plug-in hybrids are leading the way: they accounted for more than one in five new vehicles sold in the country in the first six months of the year.

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