By R. Bruce Striegler

In a burst of action, hydrogen is making a bid as a clean power source to respond to the world’s energy and climate challenges, as well as the economic wreckage of the Covid-19 pandemic. As countries invest into economic recovery, governments around the world are opening their eyes to hydrogen’s potential as a resource which, when used to produce electricity in a fuel cell to power an automobile or commercial vehicle, produces only pure water and heat as byproducts.

Although hydrogen has been traditionally used as a feedstock in several industrial processes (such as the refining of crude oil), recent developments have shown that hydrogen’ real potential lies in a number of other applications, including electricity generation, and storing energy from intermittent renewable sources.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier rather than an energy source. This means its potential role has similarities with that of electricity. Currently, the majority of hydrogen around the world is produced from fossil fuels (76 per cent from natural gas, 23 per cent from coal), but can also be produced from water by passing an electric current through it (electrolysis). In fuel cells, electricity is produced from the chemical reaction when hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air. In automotive applications, the electricity powers the engine and the only tailpipe emission is water vapour. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, the cost of producing hydrogen from electrolysis could fall by 30 per cent.

International group forms to expand global hydrogen technology and use

A key organization advancing the use of hydrogen is the Hydrogen Council. Launched in 2017, the Council, is a CEO-led organisation, comprised of 93 leading multinationals corporations, including Microsoft and CMA CGM. The organization uses its global reach to promote collaboration between governments, industry and investors, and to provide guidance on accelerating the deployment of hydrogen solutions around the world. “As policymakers, businesses and investors across the globe are working to recover from the economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, hydrogen is increasingly recognised as an indispensable piece of the puzzle. The recently announced EU, German and Korean plans on hydrogen are among prime examples of that momentum and we hope that other countries will join in soon”, said Benoît Potier, Chairman and CEO of Air Liquide and co-chair of the Hydrogen Council.

Membership includes an Investor Group category, comprised of banks and other financial institutions that are actively pursuing the emerging hydrogen economy. The Group works collaboratively to develop public policies and financial schemes centered on large-scale hydrogen deployment. The Investor Group was launched in January 2020 and currently comprises seven banks and investment firms. The Group has already signed a landmark agreement to collaborate on the financing of hydrogen projects addressing climate change with the European Investment Bank, one of the world’s largest providers of climate finance.

Performance and cost improvements with hydrogen fuel cells

Guy McAree, Director of Marketing and Investor Relations at Vancouver’s Ballard Power Systems, Inc. (one of the world’s leading providers of fuel cells) tells us, “There’s a whole series of significant mega-trends that have happened in the last few years, coming together to create a tremendous amount of interest in both hydrogen and fuel cell technology. Or to translate, decarbonization, like electrification of vehicles, and that’s generated a tremendous amount of interest and in terms of electrified vehicles, where we particularly focus our company. There really only two ways to create a zero-emission vehicle: using battery-electric technology or fuel cell electric technology. So our focus has been specifically on the heavy and medium duty end of the vehicle market – buses, trucks, trains and the marine market. That’s where the value proposition for fuel cells fits nicely – those applications where you have a need for long-range rapid refueling with a heavy payload, that’s where fuel cell technology fits very, very well.”

McAree explains that the value proposition for fuel cells has become quite strong. “The performance of the technology has been improved considerably in the last five or ten years and the cost of the technology has also come down quite a bit. What’s really interesting, if you look at the last year, are the number of major players in the transportation industry that are now announcing strategic relationships in fuel cells, or are making investments in fuel cell technology. Companies like Bosch, Cummins, or Faurecia – a French global automotive supplier.” Or, most recently he says, “The announcement by Daimler Trucks and Volvo that they will be entering into a joint-venture to focus on fuel cell technology for the truck market. There’s a whole range of really interesting and serious players making investments and doing deals in our space, that I think suggests everyone sees the growing opportunity.”

The International Energy Agency notes in its 2019 report, requested by the government of Japan for the G20, that clean hydrogen is currently enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum, with the number of policies and projects around the world expanding rapidly. It concludes that now is the time to scale up technologies and bring down costs to allow hydrogen to become widely used. But, it adds, for hydrogen to make a significant contribution to clean energy transitions, it needs to be adopted in sectors where it is almost completely absent, such as transport, buildings and power generation.

“It’s noteworthy that the last few years have seen the emergence of the Hydrogen Council which is focused on how we expand infrastructure deployment more widely. It’s interesting because some of the companies that founded the Council are actually big oil and gas companies along with some of the automotive players. So they see the need and they’re putting a lot of energy and money into cracking that problem,” McAree says.

Hydrogen was first identified as a distinct element by British scientist Henry Cavendish in 1776 and 100 years later, in 1874, English author Jules Verne was examining the use of hydrogen as a fuel in his popular work of fiction, The Mysterious Island. In 1959, Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company demonstrated a 20-horsepower tractor that was the first vehicle ever powered by a fuel cell. But it was the work which began in 1990 through a partnership including General Motors, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Dow Chemical Company, and Canadian fuel cell developer Ballard Power Systems on a methanol-fueled 10-kilowatt Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell that moved the markers.

Hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles – now ready for the marine market

Decades later, we’re reading volumes of media reports about the “Hydrogen Economy.” Hydrogen related company stocks are on the rise, truck manufacturers are investing, fuel cell costs have declined by 60 per cent since 2006, and the context has also changed. Over 77 countries, including Canada, have committed to net-zero targets, and credible plans to meet those targets must consider all options. Canada is well-positioned to benefit from growing international demand for hydrogen and fuel cells. Based on collaboration and investments made by both the public and private sectors in past decades, Canada has a hydrogen and fuel cell sector that thrives in export markets and that includes global leaders, Ballard Power Systems and Hydrogenics Corporation of Mississauga, which was recently acquired by Cummins Inc.

Mr. McAree says that Ballard focuses on, “Geographies where we know there is significant momentum and significant opportunity. Specifically, we’re focused on China, Europe and parts of the U.S – particularly California. (California has announced that, starting in 2029, new transit buses purchased in California must be zero-emission vehicles). In most parts of the world we see the earliest deployment of vehicles in the bus segments, this is where a lot of placements have happened up to now, and where we’ve had the most experience.” He continues, saying, “Probably the next big application that will get traction is the commercial truck market. Ballard is operating and deploying technology in the truck market, we’re powering about 3,200 vehicles today, most of which are delivery trucks in China.”  He says that this is the second-largest market for hydrogen technology, and, ‘Beyond that we see really attractive opportunities in areas like the marine segment and also the train and tram markets.”

It was an interesting co-incidence that on the same day Mr. McAree talked with Canadian Sailings, Ballard announced the launch of the fuel cell industry’s first module designed for primary propulsion power in marine vessels. Called the FCwaveTM, the fuel cell product is a 200-kilowatt modular unit that can be scaled in series up to the multi-megawatt power level. It is anticipated to provide primary propulsion power for vessels such as passenger and car ferries, river push boats, and fishing boats – as well as stationary electrical power to support hotel and auxiliary loads on cruise ships or other vessels while docked in port. Ballard’s Marine Center of Excellence, at Hobro, Denmark, will focus on engineering, manufacturing and servicing the developing marine market with the new FCwaveTM product.

Highlights of hydrogen activity on the global scene

In July of this year, The Economist reported on advances in battery technology, as part of the generally held view that battery-powered cars are the future of motoring. But Hyundai, the big South Korean vehicle-maker, is not so sure. Over the past few months it has been running a worldwide public-relations campaign extolling the virtues of an alternative source of electrical power—hydrogen fuel cells. Instead of storing and then releasing electricity from a battery, a fuel cell generates current from a chemical reaction between hydrogen (stored in a tank on board) and oxygen (from the air). Hydrogen, suitably compressed, is replenished at a filling station, like gasoline.

Hyundai reported in 2019 that sales of its NEXO fuel cell SUV increased ten-fold compared with the previous year. It reported that these numbers, “Confirmed that we are on track to achieve several milestones, including 40,000 units by 2022, 130,000 units by 2025, and 500,000 units by 2030.”  Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility – a joint venture between Hyundai and Switzerland’s H2 Energy – will rent fuel cell-equipped class 8-equivalent trucks to Swiss customers on a per-kilometer basis. The trucks are powered by two 95 kW fuel cells, and will have a range of about 400 kilometers, consuming about 34 kilos of hydrogen.

In December 2019, the government of Australia introduced its National Hydrogen Strategy, noting that, “The development of our hydrogen resources could enhance Australia’s energy security, create Australian jobs and build an export industry valued in the billions. We have all the pieces needed to create this new industry and supply clean hydrogen to the world: the energy resources, expertise, and infrastructure. This Strategy sets a path to build Australia’s hydrogen industry. We plan to accelerate the commercialization of hydrogen, reduce technical uncertainties and build up our domestic supply chains and production capabilities. The Strategy looks to initially concentrate hydrogen use in niche hubs that will foster domestic demand. A strong domestic hydrogen sector will underpin Australia’s exporting capabilities, allowing us to become a leading global hydrogen player. The Australian Government has already committed over $146 million to hydrogen projects. These projects will help us learn more about how hydrogen can form part of Australia’s energy mix to help drive down prices and emissions, as well as provide a foundation of expertise to build a competitive export industry.”

In July 2020, reported Russia’s gas giant Gazprom will start producing zero-emission, hydrogen beginning in 2024 under a new government plan to develop a hydrogen economy. The plan sees Gazprom building and beginning to test a methane-hydrogen-powered turbine next year, and until 2024 it will also study different applications of hydrogen as a fuel, both in things such as gas boilers and gas turbines, and as fuel for vehicles. Gazprom will not be the only one involved in the hydrogen drive. Rosatom, the country’s nuclear power major, will start testing hydrogen as fuel for trains in 2024. Russia’s largest private gas company, Novatek, is also interested in taking part in the hydrogen initiatives. The government plan that contains all these strategies is a road map for a future in which hydrogen will feature more prominently in Russia’s export mix, in response to changing attitudes to oil and gas in many parts of the world.

China is aggressively driving hydrogen and fuel cell development, and is on track to outpace development in the EU and U.S. with a focus on hydrogen buses and trucks. In the first seven months of 2019, installed capacity of hydrogen fuel cells increased six-fold. To the Chinese government, hydrogen offers a way towards meeting climate and pollution goals without increasing reliance on imported fuels. It also opens new export opportunities. The country hopes that hydrogen will account for 10 per cent of the Chinese energy system by 2040. Against this background, China’s hydrogen production continues to grow and is expected to surpass 20 million tons this year from over 9 million tons in 2018.

Natural Resources Canada published its “Hydrogen Pathways” document in 2019, saying in it will guide the development of a national hydrogen strategy. The document says, “There are ten potential end use pathways where hydrogen and fuel cell technologies could be deployed. These pathways can be grouped by category based on transportation, communities, industrial use or power generation. When used with hydrogen from renewable sources, hydrogen fuel cells offer a zero emission option that can be scaled for many applications including motive power for vehicles, space and water heating in communities, space and process heat for industry, and power for remote, backup, and critical applications. Hydrogen power-to-gas applications enable greater use of renewable power from intermittent sources such as wind and solar.”

Earlier this summer, Natural Resources Canada said it was working with a wide range of stakeholders to “inform” the development of a hydrogen strategy. Several provinces have shown their own interest in hydrogen, even if the initiatives have been relatively small to this point. British Columbia has established a network of retail hydrogen stations, while Quebec is openly mulling the idea of hydrogen exports to the U.S. When asked to sum up the current state of hydrogen fuel cells, Ballard’s McAree says, “I think we’re at the front-end of a really significant build-up in demand. I think we’re going to see, as we go forward over the next couple of years, a significant ramp-up in the scale of production, of sales and deployments and cost reduction at the same time. I really think we’re at this exciting time when the market is ready.”

The “hydrogen economy” offers Canada opportunities to add significant economic value for both domestic and export applications, while helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With skyrocketing debt and reduced government revenues, the hydrogen economy offers opportunities for development of leading-edge technologies, and giving a shot in the arm to Canada’s manufacturing industries. In addition, widespread adoption of hydrogen as a substitute for gasoline and diesel fuel may lead to cost reductions, potentially benefitting the entire economy. Let’s get going.