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What is the Problem with Hydrogen Fuel?

Mar 11 2017 Read 1069 Times

Hailed as the resource that could solve Britain’s toxic air pollution crisis, hydrogen fuel has big potential. But despite its popularity, environmentalists are warning that it does come with one major drawback - the widespread perception that hydrogen fuel is hazardously unsafe.

London’s filthy air crisis

Over the past few decades, air pollution has emerged as a huge issue in a string of global cities, including London. In January, one of the capital’s air pollution monitoring stations hit its annual limit just five days into 2017, with Mayor Sadiq Khan issuing a ‘red alert’ in response to a dangerous smog that blanketed the city just days later. Every year air pollution is cited as the cause of up to 40,000 early deaths in the UK, with EU regulators now issuing the nation with a “final warning.”

Electrolysis steps up as environmental saviour

Just 30 miles from central London is a busy Shell petrol station, equipped with a brand-new hydrogen fuel pump. Suitable for both cars and trucks, hydrogen fuel uses a process of electrolysis to produce the resource on-site, and reduce the storage burden. Once pumped into a tank, fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to generate power, and emit harmless water vapour as a by-product. It’s efficient, affordable and eco-friendly, with experts like ITM Power’s Dr Graham Cooley coveting it as the “cleanest and lowest-cost renewable fuel available for fuel cell electric vehicles.”

Shell has touted hydrogen fuel as an important part of its New Energies plan, designed to help it transition from oil and gas to greener fuels. And with a price point of around £10 per kg of electrolytic hydrogen, a full tank costs motorists around £50. The eventual target is £7 per kilo, which could make hydrogen fuel a serious contender against both petrol and diesel.

Hydrogen’s black reputation

But despite its potential, hydrogen fuel is dragged down by a tarnished reputation. Incidents like the Hindenburg disaster established it as an extremely dangerous fuel with the potential to erupt into fireballs and claim lives.

Yet car manufacturers and environmentalists insist that it’s safe, with a Toyota spokesperson maintaining, “I think it’s just our perception of hydrogen being extremely flammable and dangerous compared to what we’re comfortable with in this day and age, which is gasoline. Gasoline is also an extremely flammable fuel, and one that does not escape like hydrogen.”

“Hydrogen is a mature industry. It is proven to be safe, comments Sinead Lynch, Shell UK country chair. “But it’s a different type of fuel and people need to get used to that. That’s the part of this we need to really think about.”

Thanks to advances in technology hydrogen fuel is now safer than ever. If the nation can overcome its fear of hydrogen fuel and embrace innovative models like Toyota’s Mirai and Honda’s Clarity, Britain may be able to clean up its act, reclaim its air quality and save lives.

Holding its own against competitors like hydrogen fuel is just one of the challenges faced by the oil and gas industry. For more insight into the volatile landscape, ‘NEL Helps Oil & Gas Industry Reduce Financial Burden of Heavy Oil Measurement’ offers expert commentary from Craig Marshall.  

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