Renewable energy pioneers on the Scottish Orkney Islands are aiming to launch the world's first seagoing ferries powered by hydrogen. The project represents just one application for a fuel that has the potential to clean up the transport sector.
When generated using renewable energy, hydrogen gas reduces carbon dioxide emissions and provides a “greener” alternative to fossil fuels like oil or natural gas. Hydrogen is created by passing an electrical current through water to separate hydrogen and oxygen, leaving clean water as the only byproduct. A fuel cell allows the process to be reversed so hydrogen can then produce electricity. A number of countries are working to promote game-changing hydrogen projects.
As the chart shows, the current greenhouse gas trajectory will far exceed the global warming limits set by the Paris Agreement. The transition to renewables depends on new energy technologies being scaled-up to provide workable substitutes for our dependence on fossil fuels.
Certainly, hydrogen comes with unique challenges: the gas is bulky, requires expensive specialist equipment that can be costly to maintain, and few people have experience of working with it.
A recent World Economic Forum white paper, called Accelerating Sustainable Energy Innovation addresses the issues facing the energy industry in its quest to cut emissions. The report looks at ways to overcome the barriers to developing policies and initiatives that will bring about a sustainable energy future.
These are some of the countries leading the hydrogen charge:
The remote island of Eday is home to an experimental energy initiative backed by the European Marine Energy Centre. In 2017, the project successfully used tidal power to produce hydrogen. The project was recently awarded €12 million in funding to develop a hydrogen power system for the car and passenger ferries that connect the Orkney archipelago.
If the ferry launch proceeds as planned by 2021, the Eday project looks set to beat competition from other parts of the globe to become the first in the world to power a seagoing vehicle and passenger ferry using hydrogen.
Neil Kermode, managing director of Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre, told the Financial Times: “We’re proving that you can take the wind and the waves and the tides around us and use it to propel vessels through the water.”
Unlike battery electric vehicles (BEVs), ferries, cars, trucks and ships powered by hydrogen can be refuelled as quickly as a conventional petrol or diesel vehicle. Fast refuelling is an important consideration for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, which has added 11 Toyota Mirai cars fitted with hydrogen fuel cells to its fleet of response vehicles.
The zero-emissions police cars can access five gas filling stations throughout London and this number is set to increase. The new vehicles have a 480km range and rapid acceleration, although top speeds are limited to around 170km per hour.
Speaking to The Sunday Times about the move to hydrogen vehicles, Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Jerome said: “This is enabling us to make great strides towards our ambition of procuring 550 vehicles as zero or ultra-low emission by 2020.”
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The world’s first hydrogen-powered trains are operating in northern Germany on a 100km stretch of track. Although costlier than existing diesel locomotives, the new zero-emissions engines are kinder to the environment.
Equipped with fuel cells that produce electricity, the trains emit only water and steam instead of harmful carbon dioxide. The engines can run for 1,000km on a tank of hydrogen and store excess energy produced by the fuel cell on board in ion-lithium batteries.
Train manufacturer Alstom told The Guardian it plans to deliver a further 14 of the new engines to Lower Saxony state by 2021. Interest in the new trains has been expressed by other German states and internationally from countries including the UK, Norway, Denmark, France and Canada.
The world’s first commercial hydrogen-powered fuel cell car was produced by a Japanese manufacturer. The Toyota Mira established Japan as a leader in hydrogen innovation, but the nation harbors big ambitions to create an emissions-free transport sector.
With the 2020 Olympics coming up, the host nation is aiming to create a hydrogen society, promoting the gas as an emissions-free energy source. Tokyo authorities plan to increase the eight existing refuelling stations to 35 by 2020, so motorists will never be further than 15 minutes away from a refuelling point.
With interest in hydrogen as a fuel source growing around the world, pioneering projects offer an important test of the role the gas can play in a new energy economy.