By Sujata Devadas, July 28, 2017
A mounting number of companies in Europe, Asia and America such as Plug Power Inc. (PPI), Ballard Power, Hyster-Yale, Air Products (APCI), The Linde Group, Air Liquide, Nuvera Fuel Cells, Bethlehem Hydrogen Inc. (BHI) and several more - have decided they are betting on success.
Hydrogen is the energy storage mechanism for any fuel, whether it is a fossilized hydrocarbon
compound like petroleum or a renewable source like solar, wind and tidal power.
The simplest method to generate hydrogen gas for energy storage at solar or wind power plants is to electrolyze water. Hydrogen is then fed to the 'fuel cell' to generate electricity. This chemical element, the lightest and most abundant in the Universe, inexhaustible and free, could be the most cost effective green energy solution for immediate or for delayed use.
Simple, affordable solution
BHI's owner, Thomas Joseph
“It is not about changing the engine. It is simply about replacing a fossil fuel like petrol or gasoline with a fuel cell.” says BHI’s owner, Thomas Joseph. “Electric vehicles can easily be converted to fuel cell technology. In 2006, APCI and General Hydrogen removed the conventional chemical battery of an electric forklift and replaced it with a hydrogen fuel cell successfully. Thousands of forklifts now use fuel cell technology.”
BHI entered the hydrogen refueling industry in 2009, working closely with the US Department of Energy. Subsequently, BHI worked for four years with PPI to commercialize fuel cells and offer this service for powering forklifts.
In multiple warehouses - in states like California, Denver, Pennsylvania, New York and the auto assembly plants of Nissan(Ohio) and Volkswagen(Tennessee) respectively - thousands of electric forklifts were converted into hydrogen powered vehicles. BHI now works with Nuvera, Walmart and CVS in their efforts to expand this market. “One hydrogen fuel dispensing infrastructure can provide fuel for 200 forklifts. Electric forklifts operating on an indoor flat warehouse floor were the ideal prototype to test out the energy challenge.” says Thomas.
A hydrogen fuel installation unit
The piggyback benefit of this solution is refrigeration trailers that carry vegetables and frozen
foods to different locations. Conversion reduces CO2 emission by replacing diesel tanks with hydrogen powered fuel cells that operate the onboard refrigeration systems on these trailers. These trailers stop at warehouses to load their marketed commodities where hydrogen dispensing units are located, making refuelling easy.
“Airport vehicle fleets, courier fleets and public road transport fleets also have great potential to use the fuel cell power solution” Thomas explains, “but the industry needs to overcome technology challenges associated with initial power requirement to overcome inertia. Courier vehicles and public transport fleets have on-road challenges that require different power-ratings. All these are now addressed by proponents of hydrogen as the most viable green energy choice.”
Jason Marcinkoski demonstrates fuelling a hydrogen-powered FCEV
Source: US Department of Energy
Hydrogen is flammable. For it’s popular and pervasive use, international safety codes and standards must be complied with. Hydrogen’s particular physical, chemical and thermal properties must therefore be taken into account.
At fuelling stations, hydrogen is pumped into a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). It operates silently and much longer than conventional chemical batteries. The exhaust is just water and warm air. FCEVs are twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine running on gasoline.
Many automobile companies have FCEV models. The Audi A7 Sportback h-tron (2014), Chevy
Fuel Cell EV, Honda Clarity Fuel cell, Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL, Nissan X-Trail, Toyota Mirai (FCV) and the AC and SunLine Transit buses.
Not just talk, but action
It is not zero emission, but lower emission: water.
In July 2015, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda agreed on joint support for hydrogen infrastructure
development. General Motors and Honda established the Fuel Cell System Manufacturing LLC
(FCSM), a joint venture company to mass-produce advanced hydrogen fuel cell systems.
Production is expected to begin around 2020.
The global nudge to fossil fuels
Infrastructural support is what is needed. To pursue ‘emission-free driving’ (Daimler’s slogan),
Deutschland GmbH & Co.KG, Daimler and its partners Air Liquide, The Linde Group, OMV,
Shell and Total have begun the H2 MOBILITY partnership to install around 400 H2 filling
stations in Germany by 2023 - the first country to have a nationwide hydrogen (H2) refueling
network. Investments total around 400 million Euros.
Hydrogen takes centre stage in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. All road transportation in
the Olympic Village runs on FCEVs. Energy and automobile industries watch how it unfolds.
Winter Olympics 2010 in Whistler attracted global attention as Canada’s British Columbia(BC)
province put the world’s largest fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses into service, a fleet that
continues to operate.
BC has persisted in pushing for clean energy transportation. The Clean Energy Vehicle Program,
‘CEVforBC’ is it’s latest campaign. Financial incentives are offered to purchase clean energy
vehicles - up to $6,000 for a hydrogen FCEV. The incentives continue until March 31, 2018 or
until funds are exhausted, whichever comes first.
Canada has only one public recharging station in operation now. It’s 2017 budget proposes a
$120 million investment in electric vehicle, natural gas and hydrogen fuel stations and
technology demonstration projects.
The US has 37 hydrogen fuel stations, most of them along the San Francisco Bay area, funded by the California Air Resource Board (CARB). Support for less polluted cleaner cities comes from the Clean Cities Coalition where hydrogen is vying with other alternative fuels aggregating to a total of 23,546 fuel stations for all.
The US Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA) lists a vast number of economic
sectors relying on fuel cells: transportation and utilities, food and logistics, technology and
telecommunications, healthcare and the hospitality industry. The Home Depot, IKEA, eBay,
Walmart, CVS, Macy’s, Staples, Target, Urban Outfitters, Americold, Coca-Cola, Kellogg
Company are all included in their acknowledgement of fuel cell technology as a smart option.
28 Aug 2016: The successful launch of indigenous scramjet engine at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.
India’s SCRAMJET technology
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its latest satellites by using liquid hydrogen as fuel and liquid oxygen as oxidizer in its indigenously developed cryogenic engine.
ISRO’s current plan is to employ the Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, ‘Scramjet’ technology. The vehicle’s forward motion is used to compress incoming air for combustion. Hydrogen is injected into the combustion chamber, to mix with hot compressed air and ignite. Scramjet operates efficiently at hypersonic speeds and allows supersonic combustion.
A shift in demand from petroleum to green energy looks very likely within the next decade. As the demand for energy spiralled in the last decade, wind and solar power eased the situation in many countries, along with unconventional fossil resources like shale.
For a sustainable energy supply, all these will co-exist in the next decade. Petroleum dependency will continue till more cost effective solutions are available to the public. Hydrogen fuel cells are well on its way to meet the challenge.