In hypothesising sustainability scenarios for 2021, experts have often put hydrogen in transport at the top of the list of hot topics. In the European Union, the transport sector produces 27% of greenhouse gas emissions and the European Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, signed in December 2020 by the European Commission, aims to decarbonise the entire sector, which contributes 5% of Europe’s GDP and employs 10 million people. The first step in the strategy is to have 30 million zero-emissions vehicles (80,000 trucks) by 2030 and to achieve full carbon neutrality in 2050.
The path carved out by the European Commission
Hydrogen will play a key role in this process, as clearly stated in a communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. The document, dated 9 December 2020, states, “Manufacturers are also investing into hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, particularly for use in commercial fleets, buses and heavy duty transport. These promising options are supported under the EU energy system integration and hydrogen strategies as well as the strategic action plan on batteries. Energy efficiency shall be a criterion for prioritising future choice of suitable technologies looking at the whole life-cycle. Transitional technological solutions should fully respect the CO2 and pollution standards. Rail transport will also need to be further electrified; wherever this is not viable, the use of hydrogen should be increased”.
Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition, also spoke on this subject during a webinar organised by ANSA news agency: “We need to start thinking about how to make the use of hydrogen for transport possible, but we don’t have a charging and refuelling network. If a hydrogen-powered or even electricity-powered heavy goods vehicle arrives in Italy, there are no or very few recharging facilities after Bolzano. We don’t have the infrastructure for hydrogen, but that’s not even the biggest problem. We have the technologies. The biggest challenge is how to speed up implementation. How to take on regulations and procedures is what matters most now. If regulations were to stop the ecological transition, it would be a huge defeat”.
Flying with hydrogen
The use of hydrogen in transport is constantly evolving in all mobility sectors. In the air travel sector, for example, at the end of September, European engineering giant Airbus announced plans to make aviation travel emissions-free by 2020 with ZEROe. As reported by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, “Passenger air travel is producing the highest and fastest growth of individual emissions despite a significant improvement in efficiency of aircraft and flight operations over the last 60 years”. According to AirBus, the ZEROe concept can pave the way for greener air travel, reducing the aviation industry's carbon footprint by upwards of 50%.
Hydrogen on the tracks
The rail transport sector is also heading for a major breakthrough in decarbonization. Countries seeking ways to transport people while reducing the emissions of climate-changing gasses are looking at trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells. One of the first trains of this kind is Alstom's Coradia iLint, now being tested in many countries. The trains are equipped with fuel cells to convert hydrogen and oxygen from air into electricity and have a range of approximately 1,000 km, according to the company.
In addition, the battery on the train can recover energy during braking, which can then be used to boost the train when accelerating. Trains are a particularly suitable means of developing carbon-free transport. Urban regions have been electrifying trains for some time, but this process can be costly, especially in rural areas. According to the BBC, electrifying a single kilometre of track can cost from €864,000 to €1 million. Hydrogen doesn't require adding a costly electric infrastructure, but allows trains to run on the existing rail infrastructure.
Hydrogen is clean and quiet like electricity, but it doesn't have the high cost. Consequently, any location that doesn't already have electric train infrastructure, such as many areas of the U.S. and Europe, are potential use cases for hydrogen trains. Alstom's commitment is not an isolated case. For example, the U.K. has also been testing hydrogen-powered trains, called Hydroflex, since 2019 as part of its plan to eliminate diesel trains by 2040. Similarly, Scotland's University of St. Andrews took steps in September 2020 to begin a project to convert a three-car train to hydrogen as part of its Zero Emission Train Project. The Scottish government hopes to decarbonize their passenger rail transport by 2035.
Hydrogen sets sustainability in motion
For road transport, the two most promising alternatives to petrol and diesel are electricity and hydrogen. While battery-electric vehicles dominate media attention, companies such as Van Hool, Hyundai, Siemens and Toyota are working on the production of hydrogen-powered buses, lorries, trains and cars. The International Energy Agency, the European Commission, governments and cities have long believed that hydrogen is essential to achieving zero emissions in public transport and reducing air pollution.
For example, Paris, Mexico City and Amsterdam plan to replace their current buses and lorries with hydrogen or battery-powered models as early as 2025. Similarly, DHL, Budweiser and the French postal system (La Poste) are adopting hydrogen-powered road transport solutions. However, current hydrogen production is almost entirely powered by fossil fuels, with only 4% of energy coming from renewable sources. Decarbonization of the global transport sector requires a substantial increase in hydrogen production. One of the advantages hydrogen has over battery-powered cars is the speed of refuelling, which is the same as for petrol-powered vehicles, as is the range.
Furthermore, according to a report by the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, the amount of CO2 emitted per kilometre is lower than that emitted by electric vehicles, namely 2.7 g compared to 20.9 g. However, substantial investment is needed to demonstrate that hydrogen can make a significant contribution to the transition to clean energy. In Europe, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the UK have announced several joint projects to produce hydrogen from renewable sources.
In Italy, Toyota and Eni have begun collaborating in order to speed up the spread of hydrogen fuelling stations and cars. The first phase of the project involves opening a hydrogen refuelling point at two new Eni service stations in San Donato Milanese and Venice. The hydrogen available at these stations will be zero-emission, as it will be self-produced at the station by electrolysis of water using renewable energy.
Toyota will take part in the project, providing its expertise and putting a fleet of ten Mirai cars on the road that will refuel at the Eni station.
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