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Is automotive ready for hydrogen?

25 January 2021

With global sustainability legislations slowly shifting the automotive market away from combustion engines, you’ve probably heard somebody utter “my next car will be electric”. If you haven’t, it’s likely you will soon. However, one fuel source doesn’t fit all.

Making the green shift in the automotive market will require other sustainable fuel sources. Here Mats W Lundberg, Head of Sustainability at Sandvik, maps out the road towards hydrogen fuel.

The move away from petrol, diesel and hybrid cars can seem like a shifting target. In the UK, legislation to ban the manufacture of such vehicles is being introduced in 2035 – five years before its original target. Canada and Singapore are planning a phase-out by 2040, while Sweden hopes to stop producing diesel-powered vehicles as soon as 2030.

Despite these variations in deadline, global change is happening – and soon. Automakers and drivers alike will need to adjust to a more sustainable future, but how can you decide which resource will power your vehicle?

BEVs versus FCEVs

There has been a tendency for the automotive sector to view battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) as competing technologies. While BEVs gain their power from electricity stored in a battery pack that powers the vehicle’s electric motor, FCEVs are powered by fuel cells.

A fuel cell is a device that converts energy stored in molecules into electrical energy. Using hydrogen and oxygen as power, the fuel cell produces water, electricity and heat without creating any emissions other than water vapour. Only oxygen and hydrogen are required to power the fuel cell – the former is readily available in the atmosphere, and the latter can be generated through electrolysis. 

There are benefits to both fuel technologies. FCEVs can offer better weight economy, making them effective when powering larger vehicles such as haulage and courier trucks that need to limit unnecessary weight gain. Vehicles that regularly travel long distances or that need to refuel quickly are also more suited to hydrogen. Hydrogen is also a good choice for longer-term storage, since it is a gas that can easily be stored in tanks and containers, while battery lifetime can suffer if the batteries are not charged and discharged correctly.

However, hydrogen’s sustainable future largely relies on the production of green hydrogen – produced through electrolysis that’s powered by renewable resources like offshore wind. Currently, around 96 per cent of hydrogen is generated from fossil fuels, so developments must still be made if FCEVs are going to match the feasibility of BEVs.

A hydrogen future?

Green hydrogen needs to progress further, but its development hasn’t stopped the automotive industry from trialling hydrogen. Across Europe, many projects are already underway to test and deploy hydrogen buses, taxis and other large vehicles, spurring on investment in refuelling stations and other infrastructure that will be critical to the roll-out of FCEVs.

For instance, the Joint Initiative for Hydrogen Vehicles across Europe (JIVE) project seeks to deploy 139 new zero emission fuel cell buses and associated refuelling infrastructure across five European countries. JIVE is co-funded by a 32 million euro grant from the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking under the European Union Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation. Planned operating sites include the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Denmark.

Elsewhere, British carmaker Jaguar Land Rover is working on a government-sponsored initiative, Project Zeus, that will develop fuel cell technologies for its larger vehicles. While the project remains in early development and the focus is on developing hydrogen powertrain technology, the first concept developed as a result of Project Zeus is likely to be an Evoque-sized SUV.

Getting prepared

As discovering sustainable and viable hydrogen solutions begins to take off, hydrogen infrastructure will also be key to delivering the fuel source to the automotive industry. Infrastructure doesn’t only involve producing the fuel itself, but also the pipework to transport it, and the development of the fuel cells. A key component in this infrastructure is steel.

High quality steel tubes will be an important requirement for gas companies, who will require flexible solutions that can help them set up refuelling stations wherever they’re required. Sandvik is already working with one leading gas and engineering company, Linde, and is supplying its portable Solution in a Container to help the company build refuelling stations across Europe. The stainless-steel alloy tubes are used to transport hydrogen from a storage tank to a dispenser usually located about 40 to 60 meters apart.

Linde’s hydrogen gas is transported under both low and high pressures of up to 900 bars, so Sandvik’s tubes meet strict safety guidelines. The long tubes eliminate the need for conventional fittings, such as cone and thread connections or welding, which are normally used to connect shorter tubes. Removing these connections helps reduce the risk of leakage and station shutdowns.

In addition to hydrogen transport infrastructure, materials technology is also central to fuel cell development. The Sandvik Sanergy product platform consists of a coated strip for one of the most critical components in the fuel cell stack. The strip is ready to be pressed to bipolar fuel cell plates, eliminating the costly need for individual plate coating. Today Sandvik has a unique, large-scale production facility in Sandviken, Sweden, and is ready for fuel cell technology to take off.

As the automotive industry moves away from petrol and diesel vehicles, many automakers are entering new territory. While developments in BEV technology are well underway, it’s important to recognise that other sustainable options may better suit certain automotive requirements. Hydrogen fuel cells remain a working progress, but ongoing investment and their clear potential make hydrogen a strong contender for the industry’s greener future.


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