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In a week where Donald Trump has officially notified the UN that the USA is beginning the process of leaving the Paris Climate Accord, there has never been a more pressing time for the adoption of clean technology solutions, and a frank assessment of why we have not made more progress doing so already.
To say the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology has been a slow-burner would be an understatement – since the creation of the first crude fuel cell (FC) in 1838 by William Grove, to over a century later in 1958 with the Grubb-Niedrach FC’s first commercial use by NASA, and 2017’s Toyota Mirai and Honda FCX Clarity vehicles – we have not seen the uptake one would perhaps expect from a technology with such potential.
Not all is doom-and-gloom, however. 2016 was the first year in which the shipped megawatt power (MW) of transport FCs exceeded their stationary counterparts, and annual shipments of proton-exchange membrane (PEM) based FCs doubled to over 300MW largely because of this. One cannot ignore the progress of FC use in UAVs, military support devices and the conversion of heavy-duty vehicle fleets either.
To encourage further development, we must see changes in the two-fold, i.e. both in government policy and in a greater number of technologies with actual profitability.
Despite the USA’s rather unceremonious exit from the Paris Climate Accord, there is a lot of promise in the way the agreement has driven the other 194 signatories to strive to achieve their climate change commitments. A major driver for the implementation of stationary FCs are those countries who show a systematic change in renewable energy % usage in very short periods of time, creating national grids that require large amounts of load balancing – an area in which methane is very readily replaced by hydrogen.
In terms of FC transport usage, personal especially, it is Japan that is effectively the sole creator of an industry in which both R&D and business incentives have gained the support of the MNCs that commonly shy away from such disruptive technologies. China, now the largest single market for battery electric vehicles (BEVs), is displaying the same intent. Both countries demonstrate the need for large-scale government investment whilst acknowledging that hydrogen fuel cells are not a single solution.
Much like zero-emission vehicle pioneers Toyota initially suffered with the Prius, and Tesla still do with their Model 3, profitability remains for the most part an unachievable goal for FC vehicle manufacturers.
Where hydrogen perhaps remains unfeasible for personal transport in the present, its promise in the heavy vehicle sector is undeniable. Problems faced with both the safety and cost of widely distributing hydrogen refuelling stations are negated by heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks, both of which can support very large tanks allowing day-long ranges and single-point refuelling stations. Smaller commercial vehicles such as vans also present a highly-viable business case for the fitment of FC systems, especially BEV fleets whose range normally constrains them to short distances and frequent recharging, such issues overcome by using hydrogen FCs.
Where do we go from here?
For the most part, the signs are promising. Global crises such as Germany’s ‘Dieselgate’ scandal and the collapse of the Larsen C ice shelf, and Britain and France’s recent promises to ban petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, signpost a change in the last couple of years that makes the adoption of clean energy technologies a necessity in terms of government policy and profitability. In a stark contrast, recent figures from the IEA that state only 95% of all electric cars sold are between ten countries, demonstrate how far we have to go.
To conclude it would be a mistake to view hydrogen fuel cells as a single solution, rather part of the raft of clean energy technologies needed to save us from the global problem climate change presents. Whether the countries and industries involved step-up to the plate and deliver on this remains to be seen.