Allianz – Hydrogen and the Motor Industry
Hydrogen and mobility
Hydrogen is an important part of the UK’s plans to achieve its net zero target, with the government expecting it to make up 20-35% of the UK’s energy consumption by 2050 (1). As well as potential applications across a wide range of industries, hydrogen powered vehicles could also become commonplace on our roads.
Hydrogen vehicles, which are also known as fuel cell and fuel cell electric vehicles, run on the electricity they generate, with water vapour the only tailpipe emission. But, while this means they could be part of the carbon reduction solution, it’s important to understand the risks and challenges they bring.
Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant chemical element on earth, and a versatile energy carrier that can be used across a range of sectors including refining, chemical and transport.
Although it’s in virtually every molecule of every living thing, it’s not readily available as a gas in nature so it must be produced. Modern methods of production, such as renewable or nuclear energy, or fossil fuels using carbon capture, mean it’s possible to generate clean hydrogen without generating significant CO2 emissions.
Hydrogen has high energy density compared to other fuel types and can be readily transported making it attractive as a fuel source.
Risk management and legislation
There are risks to consider and manage with hydrogen. It’s a colourless, odourless, non-toxic gas that’s also highly flammable with a rapid burning rate. Self-ignition is common due to sudden release through rupture disks and pressure relief values and, when it does burn, it releases large amounts of energy which can result in a fire or explosion. Hydrogen burns cleanly and is therefore almost invisible to the naked eye; so a hydrogen flame is harder to detect without specialist detection systems.
Hydrogen can also cause metal embrittlement, where hydrogen atoms are absorbed into metal causing it to become brittle or crack. This could potentially affect piping, containers and machinery components. It can also damage skin, causing severe burns similar to thermal burns.
It’s anticipated that the UK hydrogen market will utilise existing legislation, standards and guidance, at least initially, with no plans for additional hydrogen specific health and safety legislation currently on the horizon.
This includes the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR), the Gas Safety (Management) Regulations, the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations and the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulations, among others.
Poor understanding of the hazards and risks, along with inadequate training and insufficient safe systems of work are likely to be amongst some of the primary factors in hydrogen related incidents. Good housekeeping is essential, and the following practices should be adopted:
- Avoid ignition sources, as well as combustible waste materials that could contribute to a fire in production, storage or dispensing areas.
- Premises need to be zoned with appropriate and approved mechanical and electrical equipment within hydrogen production and storage areas, in accordance with ATEX/DSEAR legalisation.
- Purposed designed hydrogen production, storage and dispensing plant should be located externally, in the open, rather than within enclosed spaces where hydrogen can accumulate. These should feature explosion relief systems, earth bonding to avoid any static risk, fixed lightning protection and isolation valves. The design, installation, commissioning and maintenance should be carried out by competent people.
- Site emergency arrangements need to be in place (e.g. hydrogen release etc.), including test scenarios and staff training.
Providing risks are well managed, transport is set to be one of the key growth areas for hydrogen. According to the International Energy Agency’s Global Hydrogen Review 2022, although hydrogen represents only 0.003% of total transport energy, demand increased by 60% in 2020 compared with the previous year (5).
Road vehicles are the main source of hydrogen demand in the transport sector, with commercial vehicles overtaking buses to become the number one user of hydrogen on the world’s roads (5). Their potential was highlighted in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, where more than 1,000 hydrogen vehicles were used including buses, cars and ski trucks (6).
Hydrogen-powered vehicles are becoming more common on the UK’s streets too. Transport for London introduced a fleet of hydrogen double decker buses in 2021 (7), with many other cities running their own fleets.
Tevva launched the UK’s first hydrogen-electric HGV in 2022, with a range of up to 310 miles and a refuel time of 10 minutes (8) and DAF is also exploring hydrogen trucks, running trials with fuel cell technology in Los Angeles.
Hydrogen has several advantages over other zero carbon fuels for commercial vehicles. Vehicles can be topped up with hydrogen in the same way and time it would take to refuel with petrol or diesel, making a refuel quick and simple. This is much more practical for heavy commercial vehicles such as haulage trucks, farm vehicles or construction plant, where the downtime and space required to recharge a battery isn’t commercially viable.
Plenty of innovation is happening in this space to support hydrogen as a fuel. Examples include
Thatcham’s Toyota Hilux hydrogen fuel cell prototype, launched in September 2023. JCB (9), which has developed a mobile hydrogen refuelling unit to allow easy transportation to sites where vehicles are operating, and Soguard, which can provide a haulage firm with its own hydrogen production stations to fuel its vehicles (10).
Alongside the ability to refuel quickly, electrification isn’t always feasible in larger vehicles. For a larger commercial vehicle such as a truck or bus, the weight of the battery required to power it is a significant barrier, making hydrogen a more viable option.
Cars and vans
In the personal lines market, there are hydrogen fuelled passenger cars available on the UK market – the Toyota Mirai saloon and the Hyundai Nexo SUV – but take-up is low.
There are several obstacles to overcome before the numbers pick up. Safety is a concern. For example, as hydrogen is a highly combustible gas, vehicles need extremely strong fuel tanks to ensure that a collision doesn’t release the gas and cause an explosion.
The technology is another stumbling block. Unlike larger commercial vehicles where the weight of the battery is an issue, this isn’t the case with a passenger car. As a result, manufacturers are pursuing battery electric vehicle technology rather than hydrogen in this market.
Lack of infrastructure is an issue too. There are just 16 refuelling stations in the UK (11), although this is expected to increase with Element 2 rolling out a national network of hydrogen refuelling stations across the UK and Ireland by 2027 (12).
Servicing and repair
With numbers low, service and repair capability is limited. Outside of the manufacturers’ networks, there is little appetite to invest in specialist training to repair hydrogen cars when exposure is so low.
Even without the economic deterrent, repairing these vehicles presents several challenges from a risk perspective. The possibility of a hydrogen leak, which could potentially lead to fire and explosion, means detection technology is essential.
Additionally, as these vehicles use batteries, repair shops would also have to put the same measures in place as they do when working on electric vehicles. It may even be practical to have separate premises to work on hydrogen vehicles due to the potential risk to other vehicles.
Without the numbers, investing in the training, equipment and safety measures is a non-starter for most repair shops. Things could change though, and other countries have had more success getting hydrogen cars onto the roads. The International Energy Agency reports (4) that there were 51,000 fuel cell electric vehicles by the end of 2021, up from 33,000 the previous year, with Korea, US, China and Japan leading the way.
While the future of hydrogen fuelled passenger vehicles is uncertain, there is far more traction in the commercial vehicles market. In this market, the size and the way these vehicles are operated makes hydrogen a viable and attractive zero carbon option.
More certainty around policy and regulation would help plus the technology is yet to be fully proven, especially at scale. These factors can deter investment so governments are looking at how they can drive innovation in these areas.
After all, while there may still be some uncertainty around hydrogen’s future adoption, it must also be noted that, as it is the cleanest fuel, there is a real incentive to make it work.
- UK hydrogen strategy (accessible HTML version) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- What is hydrogen? | Hydrogen energy explained | National Grid Group
- FutureGrid | National Gas
- The Hydrogen Stream: Germany launches world’s first operating hydrogen trains – pv magazine International (pv-magazine.com)
- Global Hydrogen Review 2022, International Energy Agency Global Hydrogen Review 2022 – Analysis – IEA (page 40)
- China Hydrogen Vehicle Market (trade.gov)
- London launches England’s first hydrogen-powered double decker buses – CityAM
- Tevva | The UK gets its first hydrogen-electric truck with the landmark Tevva launch.
- Hydrogen | Building a Greener Future | JCB.com
- Hydrogen Fuel Station installation for Haulage Companies (soguard.uk)
- Hydrogen Stations in UK. Map and List (glpautogas.info)
- About us – Element 2 (element-2.co.uk)
- Up, up and away with hydrogen | Institute of The Motor Industry (theimi.org.uk)