The nascent hydrogen market boosted by the climate emergency and Ukraine

Posted 16 August, 2022

Kevin Kendall stops his vehicle at the only station distributing green hydrogen in Birmingham, central England, and refuels with this fuel produced exclusively from renewable energies.

This gas, the lightest element in the universe, is the subject of all attention in the United Kingdom, which has been trying to secure its energy supplies since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the face of the climate emergency after mercury records this summer.

Yet at the pump, which resembles those that distribute gasoline, there is no crowd. The hydrogen economy remains embryonic, even if its actors hope to see it impose itself one day in highly polluting sectors such as the steel industry and aviation.

The full price of the professor's Toyota Mirai: is 50 pounds (about 60 euros), half less than for a diesel vehicle of similar size, the fault of the surge in the price of hydrocarbons with the war in Ukraine.

Despite these advantageous prices, the country only hosts about a dozen refueling points. “There is very little green hydrogen produced in Britain at the moment,” Mr. Kendall, professor of chemical engineering, told AFP, who would like to see the gas “go ahead”.

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

 

Hydrogen green, blue, gray...

 

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, ie separation of oxygen and hydrogen from water using an electric current, itself obtained using renewable energies.

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

"Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, green hydrogen has become more and more attractive", because it could solve the difficult equation between energy security, affordable prices, and sustainable development, Minh Khoi told AFP. Le, Head of Hydrogen Research at Rystad Energy.

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

The British executive, which is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, estimates for its part that 9 billion pounds of investment will be necessary "to make hydrogen the cornerstone" of its plan to green the country.

In this context, ten new hydrogen stations will see the light of day in Birmingham in the coming years, after the planned commissioning next year of 120 buses running on this fuel.

 

"Stuttering"

 

In Adelan's workshop in Birmingham, a quintessentially English red-brick building 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 chief executive, Michaela Kendall, is overseeing the work. "It will take time" to see the potential of hydrogen really increase, according to her, because this market "is only in its infancy". She believes that hydrocarbons still have a bright future ahead of them.

Especially since Adelan's fuel cell is designed to run on hydrogen, it can also be powered by hydrocarbon-based fuels, which are used more because "they are easier to obtain at the moment", explains Michaela Kendall. The company, she says, notably supplies itself with biofuels.

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

The United Kingdom has set a 2030 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles in the country, but due to a lack of infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles, electric cars and plug-in hybrids hold the upper hand: they have represented more than one in five new vehicles sold in the country in the first six months of the year.

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