Hydrogen as fuel is ‘a disaster’ says Centre for Sustainable Road Freight

The use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel is a “disaster”, according to the director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight.

Speaking at the SMMT’s London HQ, David Cebon from Cambridge University told visitors: “Hydrogen is a disaster. It’s something that everybody should be saying ‘no, don’t do this. Don’t spend money on this’ to.”

Cebon said that 100kWh of generated electricity, once it’s been sent through the national grid to a battery, will provide about 65kWh of power at the wheels.

But if you take the same 100kWh and used it to generate hydrogen, stored that hydrogen in a vehicle and ran it through a fuel cell to create electricity to power the vehicle, this would translate to just 23kWh at the wheels.

That process, said Cebon, is “extremely wasteful”.

The government committed £2m to a fund in May this year to encourage more businesses to move to using hydrogen vehicles. It also spent £5m on the Hydrogen for Transport Advancement Programme in 2014, which funded 12 hydrogen refuelling stations across the country.

The direction of investment in alternative fuels was also questioned by the RHA’s director of policy Jack Semple at this month’s Freight in the City Expo.

Semple asked whether the government’s £25m spend on research into methane was “innovating in the right direction”.

He said: “For a fraction of what the government has committed to methane in the last few years, we could really move things forward. So it’s good to innovate. But are we innovating in the right direction?”

  • David Cebon

    This is not exactly what I said. The sentiment is correct but the facts aren’t quite:

    if you take 100kWh of electricity (which is assumed to come from low carbon sources in future), transmit it via the grid, put it into a battery, then run an efficient electric vehicle with it, you will end up with about 69kWh of energy at the wheels.

    If you take the same 100kWh of electricity, use it to generate hydrogen (by electrolysis), compress, store and transport the hydrogen in a vehicle, then run it through a fuel cell to create electricity and use that to drive an efficient electric car, you will end up with about 23kWh at the wheels.

    The route via hydrogen is extremely wasteful, because converting electricity into hydrogen (by electrolysis) is only about 75% efficient and converting hydrogen into electricity (in a fuel cell) is only about 50% efficient, at best.

    There are other ways to make hydrogen, particularly by steam reforming of methane. However unless there is a viable Carbon Capture and Storage scheme to sequester the CO2 (the UK Government cancelled CCS research in 2015), the total greenhouse gas emissions are just as bad as burning the methane directly in a gas engine (which are commercially available now). The latter is about 43% efficient, compared to 29% for methane-via hydrogen-to electricity.

    So the only way that hydrogen can possibly make sense from an energy viewpoint requires CCS as a per-requisite. That doesn’t look like it is going to happen any time soon.

    The best strategy to reduce GHG emissions and energy cost is simply to use electricity to charge the batteries of electric vehicles. Forget the hydrogen.

    David Cebon

    • Chris Druce

      Thanks, David. Article has been amended. Very interesting argument.