Roll on Hydrogen

In January Pale Blue Dot Energy were delighted to have a one-week free trial of a hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai, courtesy of Aberdeen City Council.

The car piqued the interest of family members, neighbours and passers-by, who at the very least were taken in by the bodywork (see photographs). Most importantly it generated a lot of discussion about the case for hydrogen cars versus electric cars – especially in the Pale Blue Dot office.

The key difference between a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle and a battery electric vehicle (EV) is that the electricity in a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is generated onboard whereas an EV is like any rechargeable battery-operated device, such as a smartphone.

Both types of vehicle have a role to play in the low-carbon energy transition, so with that in mind the argument here is about our own experience and energy efficiency.

User experience

The driving experience of each type of car is similar. They’re both automatic, and make very little noise when running. At the office, one of the most appealing factors about an electric vehicle is that we can charge it at home, at the shops and at some of our favourite cafés in Aberdeenshire. We don’t make a special trip somewhere to charge our phones, so why should we do that with our cars? Colleagues who already own EVs have embraced and quickly adapted to charging overnight at home and finding charging points out and about.

Whilst it can take some time to recharge an EV,  refuelling the Mirai was a quick and easy process, which is very much in our comfort zone – it’s just like conventional refuelling. As part of the trial we were able to fill the tank free of charge, but it is widely acknowledged both in the office and the wider energy industry that the cost needs to come down. To accommodate the hydrogen tank and fuel cell, the boot space in the Mirai is smaller than its electric equivalent.

H2 car keys_redactedOur experience with the Mirai was a range of around 250 miles, which is better than most affordable electric cars on the market at the moment, which are offering between 100-200 miles (excluding Tesla).

The Mirai was a delight to drive and included several mod-cons, such as a display on the dashboard showing where the power was coming from (either the fuel cell stack or the battery) and heated seats and steering wheel, welcome on a frosty January morning!

Fuel production

If we start with renewable electricity, hydrogen produced by electrolysis (Anode reaction: 2H2O → O2 + 4H+ + 4e- Cathode reaction: 4H+ + 4e- → 2H2), is a low-carbon but high-cost method of production.  In 2019, 95% of the worlds hydrogen production is from steam methane reforming of natural gas (SMR): CH4 + H2O (+ heat) → CO + 3H2).  Unfortunately this produces CO2.  Nevertheless, even accounting for this, hydrogen fuel from SMR is still more efficient than the internal combustion engine with petrol or diesel.

As a result of the CO2 emissions, hydrogen production from SMR is often not considered to be low-carbon.  However there is a significant opportunity to produce ‘clean hydrogen’ from SMR – by capturing the waste CO2 and storing it underground. The Acorn CCS and Hydrogen project in Aberdeenshire has the potential to do exactly that, storing the waste CO2 below the North Sea seabed. This will slash the costs of producing ‘clean hydrogen’ – making the argument for the use of SMR  more appealing.

Fuel efficiency

When it comes to fuel efficiency there’s little competition – electric cars are more efficient . Without reinventing the wheel, the following YouTube video is very informative on efficiency: The Truth about Hydrogen

Hydrogen is a serious contender against hydrocarbon fuels. From the perspective of domestic use, because the refuelling process is so similar the change in mindset and lifestyle is minimal, provided your regular refuelling stations have hydrogen refuelling facilities. There is also an opportunity for existing regular refuelling stations to be retrofitted and adapted for hydrogen refuelling – which is an attractive practical consideration for large-scale deployment.

The mileage range of petrol/diesel and hydrogen is competitive, and because hydrogen is more efficient than petrol or diesel internal combustion engines and therefore a very attractive option for vehicles that need to cover long distances without stopping for a recharge, such as return to base vehicles, public transport and aviation.  This is demonstrated in the Aberdeen Hydrogen Bus project, Orkney’s hydrogen projects including hydrogen ferries, and a number of developments into hydrogen-fuelled trains, for example the Cordia iLint trains in Germany.

Although it feels like the conversation is ‘hydrogen vs electric’, the reality is ‘Low Carbon (hydrogen & electric) vs petrol/diesel’ – electric is the most efficient but hydrogen is still a vast improvement on petrol/diesel vehicles. Hydrogen for public transport and HGVs is a more compelling argument than using electric vehicles, but EVs remain the more popular low-carbon option for many private-use vehicles.

Thanks again to Aberdeen City Council, specifically Wendy Devall, and Toyota for the opportunity to experience the Toyota Mirai.  It is truly a part of our future transport landscape.

We asked everyone at Pale Blue Dot who drove the car to comment on their experience:

Sam said: To drive it feels very similar to the Outlander Plug in Hybrid I normally drive, other than it being a saloon car not an SUV. And that is the key really, it felt just like driving any other high end modern performance car that is electric. Personally I think hydrogen is the future; fast refuelling makes all the difference. Let’s get the refuelling infrastructure in place.

Alan said: Fantastic technology, quiet, familiar and easy to drive.  With the right infrastructure support, hydrogen for private-use would easily rival EV uptake.

Charlotte said: The car was a pleasure to drive, certainly a quieter and smoother experience than in my petrol car. I had it for some of the weekend so I took it for a drive to show my parents and their car-enthusiast neighbours, all of whom were very interested in the technology, curious to see under the bonnet, and keen to share our own thoughts on switching to lower carbon cars. Following conversations and research for this article, I am firmly in the camp of EVs instead of H2 for low-carbon domestic-use cars.

Tim said: Already being an owner of a 30kW Nissan Leaf, I was very excited at the opportunity to drive a hydrogen car. It lived up to expectations throughout a 40 minute drive in a modern, very techie saloon car but with little drive noise and zero emissions. The ride was comfortable with the added bonus of the cabin warming up very quickly on an icy day due to the heat recovery from the fuel cell.

David said: The lack of engine noise is most noticeable when you first get into the car and are unsure whether the car has started or not, beyond that point the most notable difference in the driving experience compared to a traditional car is the pedestrians staring as you drive past, desperately trying to read the decals on the outside.

Steve said: It’s a great car to drive and I think that hydrogen is very clearly part of the future transport mix.

This blog post was written by Charlotte Hartley.

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