Beyond Cars: Hydrogen’s Growing Role in Transportation

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on November 07, 2018
Vicky Harris
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Hydrogen-powered cars from major manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz are becoming more common in places like California and Japan. By 2021, 11 automotive manufacturers are slated to offer fuel cell vehicles―including Kia, Lexus, and BMW. For this industry, the benefits are quite tangible, especially when compared to electric vehicles: on-board hydrogen storage tanks can be recharged in a couple of minutes and have a longer range than today’s electric batteries. The challenge has been the underlying infrastructure necessary to get enough fueling stations up and running to support hydrogen vehicles everywhere.

Hydrogen-powered cars, however, are only the tip of the iceberg that is driving a silent hydrogen revolution, which promises to finally bring about the hydrogen economy futurists have predicted for decades. Hydrogen is gaining traction across many other modalities―including commercial transportation―from planes to ships to trains. This week we explore some initiatives that are speeding the momentum of hydrogen adoption in transportation.

The fuel of the stars is starting to power more and more of our lives.

Hydrogen Takes Flight

Aviation makes up 3% of global carbon emissions. In 2015, this translated into 770 million tons of CO2. In a growing industry like this one, sustainability is extremely important because air travel is projected to increase three-fold by 2050. Today’s aircraft fleet uses mostly petroleum-based fuels; the most common is kerosene containing sulfur dioxide, which can lead to acid rain and contribute to global warming.

Hydrogen is a viable fuel option to help the industry become a sustainable one that can continue to grow without negative environmental impacts. Specifically, hydrogen is beneficial because it has the highest energy per-unit-mass compared to any other chemical fuel, allowing for more payload. In the turbines that power most aircraft, hydrogen increases the percentage of water vapor, which leads to an increase of heat of combustion gases. This causes a lower pressure drop in the turbine, enabling it to produce three-times more thrust than kerosene fuel.

Aircraft manufacturers―from Boeing and Lockheed in the U.S., to Airbus in Europe, and Tupolev in Russia―are experimenting with hydrogen-powered airplanes. There are several ways that hydrogen can power airplanes: it can be burned to power a turbine or power an electric propeller with a fuel cell. Last month, Singapore-based HES Energy Systems announced plans to develop a regional hydrogen-electric plane, called Element One, which is expected to take flight in 2025. According to an article by Inverse, “The aircraft would use ultra-light hydrogen fuel cells (stored either as a gas or liquid) to tackle the industry-wide challenge of battery density not matching traditional fuel density (in other words the weight of batteries needed to power aircraft could be overwhelming).” Two years ago CNN reported on the successful HY4 test flight, “the world’s first emission-free, 4-seater electric plane powered by fuel cells,” from Stuttgart Airport, Germany. The aircraft is a collaboration between aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel, fuel cell specialists Hydrogenics, the University of Ulm, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR)’s Institute of Engineering and Thermodynamics to “change regional air travel and provide an alternative to carbon-emitting airplanes, buses, and trains.”

Sailing with Hydrogen

Like aviation, the shipping industry is also responsible for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Given that most of the world’s trade happens through shipping, it should come as no surprise that the European Commission estimates industry emissions could grow as much as 50 to 250 percent by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) enacted new regulations for greenhouse gases earlier this year that requires CO2 emissions to be halved by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. This means the world’s maritime fleet will need to emit zero carbon by 2030 to meet the IMO’s climate target. Finding clean alternatives that also increase the efficiency of ships are imperative. Oceans Deeply suggests that for “shipping industry executives and energy experts, the fuel of the future for cruise liners, ferries, and container ships will likely be hydrogen. Electricity generated from a hydrogen fuel cell to drive a motor produces no emissions,” and hydrogen can be produced, “from a resource that all vessels have easy access to: seawater.”

The good news is that, just as with flying, hydrogen is beginning to make its way into enabling more efficient and clean shipping. According to IEEE Spectrum, “About two dozen early projects have shown that fuel cells are technically capable of powering and propelling vessels.” For instance, the Energy Observer, a ship powered by hydrogen fuel cells supported by solar and wind, set sail around the world last July on a six-year mission to “highlight the capabilities of clean technology and how it can be used for transportation,” as reported by Hellenic Shipping News. Last year Viking Cruises also announced plans to build a cruise ship powered by hydrogen.

Hydrogen on Rails

It is quite common for goods transported by ship to get to or from the ship by train; after all, containers were explicitly designed to fit easily onto trains and ships. Happily, the first zero-emission hydrogen-powered train has already left the station.

Last month, the first two trains powered by hydrogen fuel entered service in Germany. Engadget wrote, “Two Coradia iLint trains, made by Alstom, have begun working the line between Cuxhaven and Buxtehude just west of Hamburg…all the while spewing nothing more than water. Hydrogen gives it the freedom to run on non-electrified rails, and it’s considerably quieter than diesels―helped in part by batteries that store unused energy.” After two years of piloting, these French-manufactured trains carry 300-passengers with a range of 497 miles and a speed of 87 miles-per-hour, which makes them perfect as regional trains. The Engadget story indicates that other countries, including Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Italy, and Canada are also looking into hydrogen trains; and France intends to have their first hydrogen train on the rails by 2022.

Entering the Future with Hydrogen

Steady progress to make hydrogen a viable and cost-effective source of energy has captured the imagination of engineers and designers seeking to decarbonize the transportation sector. One of the many fronts where innovation is bringing us closer to realizing the promise of clean and abundant fuels from the number one element is Hydrogen 2.0, which enables the on-board and on-site production of clean hydrogen from water. Joi Scientific recently announced a partnership with MarineMax, the world’s largest boat and yacht retailer, to bring our Hydrogen 2.0 technology to power boats, yachts, and ships using direct combustion, hybrid electric, or fuel cells to convert the hydrogen to power.

We are witnessing a revolution in sustainable transportation everywhere, and hydrogen seems well poised to play an increasing role in all areas of transportation. As technology continues to evolve and innovations come to market, ever more practical applications of hydrogen energy in transportation will help us to move civilization forward sustainably.


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As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.


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