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We must rapidly decarbonise road transport – but hydrogen’s not the answer

We must rapidly decarbonise road transport – but hydrogen’s not the answer

We must rapidly decarbonise road transport – but hydrogen's not the answer

Hydrogen has been referred to as the “The Future of Hydrogen.” fuel of the future, and the technology features prominently in the Morrison government’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Earlier this month the government unveiled its “future fuels” strategy to reduce emissions in the transport sector, committing A$250 million for battery electric vehicles and hydrogen infrastructure. In September, it pledgedThe Clean Hydrogen Industrial Hubs Program has raised almost A$500,000,000.

Decarbonising transport is crucial in the fight to limit global warming to 1.5℃ this century. We estimate the sector contributes about 20% of global emissions – like burning two Olympic-size swimming pools filled with fossil fuels per minute, every minute of the year.

We believe that the focus on hydrogen road transport is inappropriate as independent researchers in energy and transport emissions.

Projections show if all nations’ 2030 emissions reductions targets are met, the planet will be on track to heat by a catastrophic 2.4℃. In this pressing need to rapidly reduce global emissions before 2030, developing hydrogen for low-emissions road transport won’t happen fast enough, and it doesn’t pose a viable alternative to electric vehicles.

Hydrogen in a Nutshell

Hydrogen is an important part the global economy. It is used in the production of fertilisers as well as oil refining. The federal government has identifiedHydrogen as a priority low emission technology to further develop, with a focus in hydrogen refuelling infrastructures for major freight routes and passenger roads corridors.

Last week, Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Canada, took a hydrogen car to the Toyota Hydrogen Centre for a spin.
AAP Image/James Ross

Almost allHydrogen is currently produced using fossil fuels (natural gases and coal) which accounts for approximately 2% global emissions. Hydrogen is clean and climate friendly only if it’s produced from renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind and hydro. This process uses electrolysis to convert water into hydrogen, and is aptly called “green hydrogen”.

Hydrogen advocates have been advocating hydrogen for more than 20 years. have been promisingThe future of clean electricity While the pace of green hydrogen projects is increasing, many are still in an early stage. Just 14Globally, major projects began construction in 2020.

It is vital to develop hydrogen technology, even if it is not used in the road transport sector. green steelThese will reduce emissions, and create new Australian jobs.




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But we’re not betting on hydrogen for road transport

Global sales dataFor cars and light commercial vehicles, as well as statements from corporate leaders, suggest many vehicle manufacturers don’t seriously consider hydrogen a viable and lucrative transport fuel.

For example, the Honda Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle ceased production in August 2021 to “trim underperforming models from its line-up”. Some manufacturersEven lobbyists are pushing for an even faster transition to electric vehicles.

Honda’s fuel cell vehicle ‘FCX Clarity’, unveiled in 2008 in Tokyo.
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

Hydrogen could play a greater role in the development of the. long-haul truck marketThese benefits include a long range of driveability and short refuelling time, which are both important in this sector.

Hydrogen, however, is a dynamic and agile competitor. electric truck marketThis shows significant and consistent annual increases in battery energy density and prices. What’s more, truck makers – such as Daimler, MAN, Renault, Scania and Volvo – have indicatedThey see an all-electric future.

When compared to other electric truck technology, hydrogen’s benefits dissipate. This includes battery swappingThis allows for short refuelling times, and the creation of e-highways. These roads are automatically created. recharge vehiclesWhen they drive along it.




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While it’s true these systems are still being tested in, for instance, Europe and the US, they have a promising outlook. For example, July saw the UK government announced £2 million (A$3.66 million) to design overhead charging cables that would power electric lorries on a motorway.

Likewise, the battery swapping networkChina’s hydrogen refuelling network is already larger than that of China, even though it is still very young.

Low energy efficiency

Low energy efficiency is a fundamental problem with hydrogen transport. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. This means it needs to be generated, compressed or liquefied, transported and converted back into useful energy – and each step of the process incurs a substantial energy loss.

In fact, both hydrogen vehicles and petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles have similar fuel consumptions energy performanceApproximately 15-30% of fuel’s available energy is used for driving. This is in contrast to battery electric cars. which use70% to 90% of the energy available.

In other words, the amount of renewable energy required for a green hydrogen vehicle to drive one kilometre is the same as what’s required for three electric vehicles to drive the same distance.

This is an important issue. The more energy required to transport, the more renewable energy is needed. This makes it more difficult to decarbonize the economy quickly and efficiently.

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Electric vehicles are more efficient than hydrogen in terms of energy consumption.
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We believe there are three other important issues with hydrogen that need to be taken into consideration, which may not be as well-known.

First, the potential for significant leakageHydrogen production, transport, and use. Hydrogen is more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, so any hydrogen loss reduces overall energy efficiency.

Second, hydrogen emissions due to leakage could add to local and regional air pollutionThis could even lead to the loss of the ozone layer in stratosphere. However, more research is needed in this area.

Lastly, hydrogen requires clean water. A single hydrogen fuel cell car requires aboutFor every 100km of driving, you will need 9 litres clean, demineralized water. This would be more than 50 litres for a large truck.

If seawater and desalination plants were used in the production of the water, an additional energy loss would be caused, which would penalize overall energy efficiency.

Electric vehicles: Focus on them

The rapid deployment of hydrogen for road transport must be done at scale and it requires a holistic strategy to promote changes in everyday travel behaviour. Betting on the future large-scale availability of hydrogen for this sector won’t see this happen fast enough. If clean hydrogen production falls below expectations, it could lead to fossil-fuel dependence and additional greenhouse gas emissions.

We must reduce our energy demand and increase energy efficiency in transport as quickly and efficiently as possible. The available evidenceAccording to experts, battery electric vehicles are the only technology that will achieve this in the near term.

For a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we should electrify transport where we can, and use other options like green hydrogen where we genuinely can’t, such as long-range shipping and aviation. Depending on the progress of truck electrification efforts, hydrogen could still play a part in long-haul trucking. However, it will need a lot more renewable power.

It is logical to first convert the global production of hydrogen from fossil-fuel-based fuels to green hydrogen. But electric vehicles should be available across Australia and the rest of the world.




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The authors are grateful for the contributions and discussions made by Professor Eckard Helmers (University of Applied Sciences Trier Germany) and Dr Paul Walker from University of Technology Sydney.

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