Amid all the worry about the use of fossil fuels, the effects of carbon emissions and the damage that we’ve caused – and continue to cause – to the environment, developing genuinely effective ways to increase sustainability has become perhaps the number one item on the agenda for the planet’s most prominent nations in recent times. It’s easy to see why, of course; the clock is ticking, the bell is tolling and the world is watching. Doing nothing, frankly, is no longer an option.
Pollution and environmental damage come in many forms, but the way we get from point A to point B is generally considered to be the most harmful. In the UK, the transport sector accounts for an estimated 28% of greenhouse gas emissions, 23% comes from energy supply and 18% from business. No wonder there has been a major upheaval in the domestic car market, both in regard to the vehicles we drive and the way that we power them.
Much of the focus has been on the rapid rise in the use of electric vehicles (EVs), and much has been written about their suitability to a Brave New World, but there are many who see the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles as equally, perhaps even more, important. In the rush to adopt new technologies, however, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we need to be sure this is the way forward. Investing billions of pounds in something that doesn’t tick all the right boxes could be very foolish indeed.
This is NOT a done deal
The clamour for a hydrogen-related solution is understandable; it’s clean, it’s abundant and the only exhaust emissions are likely to be water. It’s too easy, however, to immediately think of hydrogen as a knight in shining armour that has come to rescue us all from the soon-to-ensue chaos. There are major problems that could yet prove to be almost insurmountable, so let’s not start counting our hydrogen chickens before they hatch just yet.
Chief among the drawbacks is the cost of actually changing it from an abundant gas into a viable source of energy that can be used to power millions of cars on a daily basis. As the framework for hydrogen production grows, so that cost will undoubtedly come down. Until that day comes, though, the process needs hefty investment from people and organisations that are not looking for a fast buck. If there’s such a thing as a slow buck, that’s what investors will have to expect.
Another issue is the infrastructure. We have one already in place for oil, from extraction to processing into petrol and diesel, but it didn’t just appear overnight. It took decades to get to the complex entity that we now have in situ, and the same issues could apply to hydrogen manufacturing. The only problem this time around is that, as we said earlier, the clock is ticking. We don’t have decades to fix things, we really don’t.
Handle with care, EXTREME care
It’s also worth noting that hydrogen is extremely flammable, and as a result it needs to be treated with respect. If you’ve ever seen that old footage of the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, you’ll know just how volatile this gas can be. It’s thought that the whole, shocking turn of events was caused by one single spark that was created by electrostatic discharge. Handle with care will be the order of the day, every day, when hydrogen-powered cars become a common sight. Having said that, of course, we already power the vast majority of our vehicles with an extremely flammable liquid, so the need to be safety-conscious is already in existence.
At the moment, we still need to use fossil fuels to produce hydrogen, and that will need to change if we’re to make the switch in any meaningful numbers. Coal, oil and natural gas are regularly used to separate hydrogen from oxygen, so things are going to have to change. Researchers are already looking to utilise solar and/or wind power for this operation, so perhaps that will help to turn well-meaning plans into a fully working reality.
Whether we as a society commit to an EV-only future or one that combines the use of both hydrogen and batteries, one thing is fairly certain: the days of mass usage of the internal combustion engine are numbered. It will still be around, of course, but you get the feeling that it will only play a bit part from now on. Think of it in terms of a washed-up actor who was once the toast of Hollywood, now reduced to cameo appearances on third-season sitcoms that should have been canned after the second series.