In the past couple of years, the concept of the hydrogen economy has become one of the fundamental elements on which the European Union is focusing its sustainable energy policy for the decades to come. Why is such an option, which requires a major research effort, proving so convincing?
A consortium of almost 30 participants – including fuel cell developers, vehicle constructors, hydrogen industries, urban transport operators and municipal authorities – is working on a particularly ambitious European demonstration project, known as Cute (Clean Urban Transport for Europe). With a budget of almost €54 million, including nearly €18 million in Union funding, the aim is to put into service a fleet of 27 clean and silent prototype hydrogen buses, to operate on public transport networks in nine European cities. The supply infrastructures were built in 2003 and the first buses have already been delivered to several cities. The ‘tests’ have started in Porto, Madrid, Stockholm, Stuttgart and London. Another demonstration project, known as ECTOS, is currently in progress in Reykjavik (Iceland) where three buses are in service, fuelled by hydrogen produced from renewable energy.
A decade ago, it remained, at best, a ‘distant alternative’, a ‘prospect for the future’. The emphasis was not so much on hydrogen as such as on the ‘fuel cell’. This technological option, until then largely unfamiliar to the general public, was presented primarily as the system which would enable the production of completely clean ‘cars of tomorrow’.
The age of the electric car In recent times it has become increasingly clear that the age of utilising exclusively fossil fuels for transport and other uses would come to an end one day. At some point, the resources would be exhausted the threat of climate change would start to be taken very seriously.
The first alternative to be developed was the electric car – in ‘pure’ or hybrid form – equipped with rechargeable batteries. A lot of research was and is being carried out in this area and significant progress has been made. Today, a number of vehicle fleets are driving on our roads using this power source. Although particularly suitable for combating pollution in an urban environment, this generation of 100% electric cars came up against the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of limited autonomy and cumbersome recharging operations. The preference therefore shifted to hybrid vehicles. Although interesting in many respects, these reduce rather than eliminate the dependence on petrol fuels.
Switching to the fuel cell The fuel cell increasingly came to be seen as an attractive alternative to the rechargeable battery. The principle, which has been known for many years, is almost too good to be true. When combined with the oxygen in the air, hydrogen produces an electric current which is able to power a vehicle engine. Instead of the exhaust gases from the internal combustion engine, in this case the residue is water and a little heat. The theoretical emission level for CO2 and other pollutants deemed detrimental to the environment and health is zero. These fuel cells also offer two other advantages: a high energy output and no noise pollution.
During the 1990s, efforts were focused increasingly on the development of these fuels cells, particularly in and by the automotive sector. In Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan, public programmes financed contracts between research bodies and companies. As a result, at the end of the 1990s, the two major European projects Fever (carried out by Renault and Volvo) and Hydro-Gen (PSA-Peugeot-Citroën) were able to unveil the first ‘fuel cell prototype vehicles capable of convincing road performances. At the same time, DaimlerChrysler and Opel-GM launched their own intensive demonstration programme with their respective models, Necar and Hydro-Gen.
The unveiling of these prototypes was of immense value: they demonstrated that the fuel cell has real potential. At the same time, these achievements served to emphasise further the gulf between developing such an innovative concept and its widespread application. Failing changes to the present energy set-up in a society where petrol is ‘king’, these cars of the future are destined to remain non-commercial ‘curiosities’. A radical and much more global change is needed if we are going to offer this new generation of vehicles any chance at all of penetrating the market one day.
Hydrogen comes on the scene These wider issues facing fuel cells are beginning to give rise to a new approach to the whole energy equation in the contemporary world. A new global concept has emerged: that of the hydrogen economy. Since 2002, EU officials have made this the centrepiece of a European policy for renewable energy (see box).
What are the motivations and implications of such a strategy? As a very abundant ‘elementary’ resource at global level – not only in the vast waters of the world’s oceans and rivers but also everywhere in the organic world, from biomass to hydrocarbons themselves – hydrogen is a potential source for the release of a huge energy capacity. In the face of the persistent problem of climate change which hangs over human society today, the large-scale exploitation of hydrogen would make it possible to achieve a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions.
Summary of the hydrogen economy.Upper part: production – Lower part: uses.
Nevertheless, hydrogen is a paradoxical resource. Nowhere on Earth is it found in an isolated state. This means it must be produced by first harnessing other primary energy sources. Two processes for doing this are already possible: hydrogen can be extracted from fossil fuels, while capturing and isolating CO2 emissions; alternatively, it can be obtained by water electrolysis. Once produced, hydrogen can be stored and transported. These operations, which have already been shown to be feasible, nevertheless require many adaptations.
From one fairy to another It is therefore the perceived benefits of this production-storage-transport chain which form the basis of the innovative potential of the hydrogen economy. The result is that hydrogen is no longer seen as a ‘direct’ fuel (as it is when used in rockets or to power an internal combustion engine) but, much more widely, as a new energy vector.
In this respect, it is comparable to the universal vector through which vital quantities of our energy supplies are channelled, namely electricity. This is produced at power plants then transported through cables to the sites where it is consumed. Indeed, so fantastic did this determining revolution in the technological history of humankind initially seem that at one time it was referred to as the ‘electricity fairy’.
In the same way, hydrogen obtained at production units can be transported by pipelines or road haulage tankers. What’s more, when it comes to storage, whether before or after transport, hydrogen is decidedly better than electricity which – with the exception of rapidly exhaustible batteries of fairly low capacity – is fed into distribution networks for consumption the minute it is produced. Hydrogen can be stored at ‘service stations’ where it can be delivered to vehicles ‘at the pump’ in the same way as petrol or diesel(1). The hydrogen delivered to the vehicle tank will then become the vector with which to supply the on-board fuel cells used to produce the current to propel the vehicles equipped with electric engines. In a sense, the new hydrogen fairy supplies a cordless current.
The description of this vectoral chain explains why the promising results achieved with fuel cells must be exploited in conjunction with this new potentially revolutionary hydrogen economy. Motor manufacturers, although remaining convinced by this technological revolution, cannot move forward unless a global system of production, distribution and utilisation is progressively put into place. This must be conceived of and developed at the research level and then tested and developed at the cost of huge concerted investments.
Such an infrastructure development would have consequences far beyond the field of transport alone. On a scale embracing all of society’s energy needs, the hydrogen fairy would become the decentralising ally of the electricity fairy. Present research is already looking at prototypes of large-scale stationary fuel cells. These would be able to meet a vast and delocalised industrial, agricultural, tertiary or residential electricity demand – for both heat (via co-generation) and mechanical energy.
The scale and implications of this new economy – which has absolutely nothing to do with the Internet bubble that burst around 2000 – are vast. Developed in close co-operation with the industrial circles concerned, hydrogen now looks like a viable and lasting way out of the impasse into which the ‘primacy of fossil fuels’ has led the world’s energy system. For Europe, there is the added and growing concern over its energy dependence.
(1) Insofar as hydrogen production (see ‘H2 Hour’ below) is also possible on a very decentralised scale, at a particular residential building for example, it would also be possible to ‘fill up’ the car before it leaves the garage.
One essential advantage of hydrogen is that it offers the prospect of access to literally inexhaustible supplies. Water is one of the principal sources of hydrogen. It is extracted by electrolysis which involves applying an electric charge to the ...
Chronology of a European commitment
October 2002. Loyola de Palacio, Commissioner responsible for energy and transport, and Philippe Busquin, Commissioner for research, charged a High Level Group (HLG) – made up of representatives from the automotive industry, the energy sector, ...
One essential advantage of hydrogen is that it offers the prospect of access to literally inexhaustible supplies. Water is one of the principal sources of hydrogen. It is extracted by electrolysis which involves applying an electric charge to the water. Far from being a drawback, this close alliance between hydrogen and electricity, also at the upstream stage, has the potential to revolutionise the energy equation of the future. The hydrogen-electricity synergy opens the door to the exploitation of fluctuating renewable energies – the wind, the sun and the waves. By their very nature, these are difficult to integrate into the present electricity supply system in which supply must provide an immediate response to demand. Their role in the hydrogen economy, which would enable the energy they produce to be stored, can remove this obstacle and provide a market which would render the use of these precious resources economically viable.
Chronology of a European commitment
October 2002. Loyola de Palacio, Commissioner responsible for energy and transport, and Philippe Busquin, Commissioner for research, charged a High Level Group (HLG) – made up of representatives from the automotive industry, the energy sector, the research world and policy-makers – to define the basis for an integrated vision of the EU’s strategy on the role of hydrogen and fuel cells, with a view to a sustainable energy policy for the coming decades.
June 2003. ‘The alliance of hydrogen and electricity is one of the most promising means of arriving at sustainable energy.’ This conclusion, with extensive evidence to back it up, sums up the HLG’s final report Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: A vision of our future, presented at a major conference in Brussels. While stressing the complexity of an effective transition, in which competition between Europe, the United States and Japan looks like being severe, the Group recommended a substantial increase in R&D budgets in this field – ranging from fundamental research to validation programmes.
September 2003. Commission President Romano Prodi awarded this dossier high priority. He decided to set up a Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform, steered by an Advisory Council, charged with defining and carrying out concrete RTD actions.
In terms of resources, in addition to the budgets which could be allocated within the Sixth Framework Programme, the Commission placed this field of research at the heart of the European Growth Initiative. As such it was the subject of one of the Quick Start programmes to support projects by public and private investment partnerships to develop European infrastructures, networks and knowledge, with the support of the European Investment Bank. A budget of almost €2.8 billion over ten years was allocated to the Hypogen – construction of a pilot production plant combining hydrogen and electricity on a major scale – and Hycom projects – development of a number of ‘hydrogen villages’ demonstrating the concept, at a decentralised level, of stationary electricity and heat production, combined with supply to fuel cell transport systems.
Autumn 2003. The hydrogen question was among the resolutions adopted at the USA-EU summit in June 2003. This was followed, in Washington in November, by the launch of an International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy initiated by the United States and bringing together the European Commission and 14 other countries.
January 2004. The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform was formed and held its first general assembly, the participants mainly comprising the most advanced industries in this field. Its president is Jeremy Bentham, director of Shell Hydrogen, subsidiary of the oil group, with vice presidents Herbert Kohler, responsible for environmental research with the motor manufacturer DaimlerChrysler, and Nobel prizewinner Carlo Rubbia, president of the ENA in Italy. The actions selected by the Platform are expected to start before the end of 2004.