Future of Technology Series 2018: 'Hydrogen — time to put our foot on the gas?'

Adam Chace of E4Tech introduces the APC hydrogen meeting at the National Museum of Wales. Photo Copyright Ed Loye.

On 5 March 2018 Ed Loye attended the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) and Innovate UK's Future of Technology Series 2018: 'Hydrogen — time to put our foot on the gas?' at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

The APC exists to position the UK as a centre of excellence for low carbon propulsion development and production. The APC was formed in 2013 and is a £1 billion, ten-year commitment between government and the automotive industry. It has several 'spokes' that support research and development on batteries, motors, internal combustion engine efficiencies, and hydrogen cells.

Why would SoS RARE attend this, I hear you ask? Well it is worthwhile knowing that the hydrogen fuel cell operates like a battery in reverse. The electricity generated by reuniting hydrogen and oxygen powers a permanent magnet electric motor — which of course contains rare earth elements, principally Nd(Pr) and Dy.

Also, some hydrogen storage facilities require lanthanum nickel alloys (a similar principle to La use in NiMH batteries used in some hybrid car batteries such as the Toyota Prius). La and Ce are the most abundant REE in most deposits, and so identification of new applications for La (and definitely Ce) would be very valuable to the REE industry.

To decrease emissions from the transport sector, countries around the world are announcing restrictions on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles (some coming into effect as early as 2025). Meanwhile, electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids are growing in popularity. EVs still have their drawbacks — battery technology is currently costly in comparison to petrol and diesel vehicles, and consumers are concerned about range and charging times — so called 'range anxiety'.

The meeting in Cardiff asked if hydrogen could be a viable alternative fuel? Hydrogen would solve refuelling and range anxiety issues — taking minutes to refuel for a range of over 300 miles. The only emission from the vehicle is water, making it ideal for use in cities and low-emissions zones.

However, hydrogen is not without its issues. Storage of these tiny molecules is extremely difficult and an extensive and costly change to infrastructure would be needed. The challenges associated with the use of hydrogen as a form of energy include developing safe, compact, reliable, and cost-effective hydrogen storage and delivery technologies. The lanthanum alloy of LaNi is one of a few materials that can be used to help safely store and release hydrogen. It is used for its catalysis properties and is much more affordable over palladium and other PGMs.

The event in Cardiff brought original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) from the automotive supply chain including Toyota, Riversimple and Intelligent Energy. Other hydrogen suppliers attended including BOC. It was outlined that the hydrogen fuel cell isn't only limited to cars, but is actually a viable technology for long-distance commercial vehicles including lorries and buses. For example, Aberdeen is conducting a major trial of hydrogen powered buses in the city, positioning Aberdeen as a hydrogen centre – looking ahead of decline of the hydrocarbon industry.

Toyota UK in a hydrogen powered Mirai
Toyota Mirai

Jon Hunt, Marketing Manager for Toyota UK outlined the Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fuel-cell car you can purchase today (albeit for £60 000). Whilst over coffee I managed to ask Jon about the batteries that Toyota use in the Prius and other EVs (as opposed to hydrogen technologies) and it was interesting that Toyota actually prefer using NiMH (containing La as the “M”) batteries over lithium ion batteries because the former is better at using the electricity generated on braking in the hybrid. In terms of REEs in the motors Jon also mentioned that Dy usage has been greatly reduced in the permanent magnets, and that a recent study by Toyota has seen La able to substitute in for circa 20% of the Nd in a Nd(La)FeB magnet without significant difference in efficiency.

Panel discussion at the APC meeting

Today most hydrogen production is generated from existing industrial processes: the majority (around 95 per cent) is produced from fossil fuels by steam reforming or partial oxidation of methane and coal gasification. Bear in mind hydrogen today is comparable in price to petrol and diesel. However, this is adequate for the limited uses of hydrogen today. An upsurge in demand would require hydrogen to be produced by electrolysis – which is very energy intensive. If all of Europe's car and lorry drivers were to switch to hydrogen fuelled vehicles it is estimated we would require 33 new nuclear power stations to meet the electrolysis demand!

Of course another disadvantage is that the infrastructure to support hydrogen vehicles is minimal today, for example less than 10 filling stations within the whole of the UK. Most Toyota Mirai owners in the UK (which one can count on two hands) are restricted to the Greater London area.

There are uses of hydrogen outside of transportation. The Olympics in Japan in 2020 are being earmarked as a showcase for a range of hydrogen powered technologies.

In the UK one of the most advanced R & D to production of hydrogen cell technologies is at Bramble Energy headed by Professor Dan Brett of UCL.

It was concluded that hydrogen-cell-powered vehicles could be complementary to EVs, adding to a mix of low-carbon propulsion options as we wean ourselves off petrol and diesel. It is generally envisioned that hybrid and EV technologies will be appropriate for most cars and bikes, whilst hydrogen cells lend themselves more to commercial vehicles (lorries, buses) because of their higher energy density and range capacity.

Ed Loye, 5 March 2018


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