The hydrogen highway to better air quality

The hydrogen highway to better air quality
Martin Brown

Posted by

Martin Brown

May 2020

There’s no hiding from the fact: air quality continues to be an issue in Glasgow, where Fleet Alliance is headquartered.

Scotland’s most polluted street – Hope Street, Glasgow – still has higher levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide than is permitted under European Ambient Air Quality Directive. The permitted level is more than 22% above the legal limit. Still, it’s better than the year before so at least some progress has been made.

I’ve been critical before of Glasgow’s tardy low emission zone and its limited ambition. But gradually Glasgow City Council is starting to make real efforts to clean the air. This year, it will receive the first of its hydrogen powered vehicles that are part of a plan to make all the council’s vehicles emission free by 2029.

The local authority is hoping its bold lead towards a zero emissions fleet will spark the development of a Scottish market for hydrogen-powered vehicles. In turn this will help reduce emerging technology costs while supporting the efforts of other transport providers to modernise their own fleets.

And now bus maker Wrightbus is in talks to have a fleet of hydrogen fuelled buses ready for the postponed COP26 conference operating from a central hydrogen hub in 2021.

London already has a fleet of hydrogen buses driving through the capital’s streets. These buses, along with London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, have helped to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels by 33%. And during the novel coronavirus outbreak, these levels have reduced by a further 27%. So I can see these changes making a difference to Glasgow.

But what’s the relevance of hydrogen to car fleet operations?

It’s certainly a useful technology if rather expensive at the moment. Toyota is the best known producer of hydrogen vehicles with its Mirai model. London’s environmental executive car company, Green Tomato Cars, is a user, having carried over 80,000 passengers while producing zero CO2 and no nitrogen dioxide.

Hydrogen cars are quick to refill – as long as you have a hydrogen filling station near you of course – and have a range of some 300 miles on a tank of compressed hydrogen.

New technology also makes onboard storage easier.  A team at Northwestern University in America has designed a porous metal material that can store more hydrogen at lower pressure and will help rescue the costs of hydrogen vehicles. And, if the car can store greater amounts of hydrogen, this will also extend how far it can travel on a tank of the gas.

I admit, there are questions over the feasibility of hydrogen. Recently Mercedes-Benz halted its hydrogen passenger fuel cell development programme, while at the same time creating a joint venture with Volvo Trucks to develop hydrogen power heavy goods vehicles. Volkswagen is going all-out on battery technology. Meanwhile, hydrogen has been a ‘dirty’ gas to manufacture, producing unwanted CO2 in the process.

However, new developments in creating green hydrogen – harnessing excess wind and wave generation and using hydrogen as the storage vehicle – are now happening.

For example, a company called Ryse Hydrogen, owned by JCB heir Jo Bamford, is in the process of building the UK’s first hydrogen production plant on the Kent coast. This will be powered by an offshore wind farm using electrolysis to produce hydrogen from water. A further four plants are planned. Ryse Hydrogen also owns Wrightbus, incidentally.

And unlike its premium German rival, BMW is developing its hydrogen technology in association with Toyota. It has a prototype based on the BMW X5 SUV called the i Hydrogen Next concept. It will go into pilot production in 2022.

BMW says it believes battery electric vehicles offer the opportunity to bring zero emission vehicles to the market at speed and at scale. Hydrogen is further down the development road but BMW aims to use it in its larger SUV type vehicles in due course.

As hydrogen technology becomes cheaper in the future, it has every opportunity to be a credible fleet choice alongside battery electric vehicles. And that’s the point. Hydrogen offers a choice – it’s not an either/or with battery electric vehicles – a VHS versus Betamax scenario. In the same way fleets can now choose from diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles depending on application, so fleets in the future will have another clean fuel option.

A welcome option that will be part of the answer to delivering cleaner air to Glasgow; and to the wider world.


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