Last January, we caught up with Tom Mutchler, then General Manager for Worldwide Equipment at Air Products to discuss the possible dawn of a hydrogen driven economy. But more than a year later we re-convened with Air Products to assess just how much of this promise has been actualised.

By way of a refresher, Ian Williamson, President of the European Hydrogen Association and Director of Hydrogen Energy Systems for Europe, India and Africa at Air Products, outlined the benefits of hydrogen fuelling technology.

“A hydrogen car is effectively an electric car with a different energy storage medium. Unlike pure electric powered cars, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles compete with conventional vehicles in terms of range, performance, refuelling times and give off no emissions at the point of use; water being the only substance emitted from their exhaust pipes. Also, it is possible to create hydrogen renewably, through for example, waste to energy technologies,” explained Williamson.

Indeed the benefits of hydrogen are not going unnoticed. Many nations are already investing in hydrogen transport infrastructure, with countries such as Germany spending €1.4bn on the alternative fuel source. Equally encouraging is recent research produced by McKinskey which indicates that fuel cell vehicles will be the cheapest option, when compared with conventional and other low-carbon alternatives, for medium to large cars in the next 10-15 years.

Similarly, many global car manufacturers, including Toyota, Honda and Daimler have already committed to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles commercially viable by 2015.

Nevertheless, it’s not just a fuelling solution for automotive transport anymore. With a growing convoy of economic and business incentives encouraging companies to adopt hydrogen alternatives, it seems that a spectrum of industries are now compelled to consider the benefits of hydrogen energy. Indeed, Air Products was equally keen to highlight the growth of municipal interest in hydrogen as an alternative fuel for public transport, and in particular buses. Williamson remarked, “We see this market as being a significant driver even before the introduction of mass personal vehicle fleets.”

Air Products’ activity in this sector alone over the past year seems to readily substantiate Williamson’s claims. In fact, the company utilised its unique Dual Phase Hydrogen Tanker when it won a contract to fuel London’s first hydrogen bus fleet. In a more high profile capacity, the company also provided hydrogen for a fleet constituting more than 50 hydrogen fuel cell shuttle vehicles at the Asian Games and Asian Para Games in November 2010, at Guangzhou City, China.

For the more sceptically minded, perhaps some statistics will persuade you of the imminence of a hydrogen economy. Air Products, which possess approximately a 50% share of the hydrogen market, boasted a venerable output during the last 12 months. “In total we’ve now placed over 120 hydrogen fuelling stations in 19 countries worldwide, and these are being used for 300,000 hydrogen fills per year,” summarised Williamson.

Annual developments
When we last addressed Air Products on the matter, Mutchler pinpointed the material handling sector as an especially promising arena regarding hydrogen fuelling, but where does this sector stand now?

According to Williamson, it still remains a lucrative avenue, and one that is forging its way Stateside towards Europe. He commented, “Materials handling remains an area of very strong growth. With the incentives that exist in the US this is seen as a commercial market and companies are making hydrogen-related decisions on a financial basis. This situation is now expanding and we’re seeing the beginnings of this market in Europe.”

Indeed, even the French competitor firm, Air Liquide, just recently entered into two hydrogen supply contracts thanks to the material handling sector. In February the company penned a contract with the conglomerate Coca-Cola to provide hydrogen and related infrastructure to power a forklift fleet in San Leandro, California. While barely months earlier, the same company closed a similar deal with Walmart’s sustainable distribution centre in Alberta, Canada.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the comparative fuel consumption of material handling vehicles and personal cars. As a spokesperson for Air Liquide acknowledged, “A class one forklift consumes five times more hydrogen per year than a personal car.”

Despite some stasis between 2010 and 2011, there are other aspects that have undergone considerable turnaround over the past year. Perhaps the most pertinent is the regional change of interest in the hydrogen alternative. Williamson described to gasworld that it is a change being driven largely by politicians, “We’re now seeing a willingness from industry and politicians, especially in California, Europe and Japan, to back hydrogen and push the technology forward enabling mass public roll out from 2020 onwards.

For example, at the opening of one of our fuelling stations last year, the Secretary of State for Transport Phillip Hammond MP endorsed hydrogen cars and fuelling saying, “It’s state-of-the-art technology like this that will help drive the British economy in years to come.”

Future opportunities
Arguably, the most exciting facet of this environmentally minded power source is the sheer scope of its future applications.

In our discussion with Air Products, Williamson mentioned a growing propensity for hydrogen in providing back-up power for mobile phone masts, particularly in burgeoning economies that regularly negotiate hot climates and unstable power grids. With more widespread ramifications still, is the “the hugely exciting” concept of producing entirely renewable hydrogen from non-recyclable waste at landfill sites.

But perhaps the most startling finding of all is that these technologies are already being explored. In which case maybe the most pertinent question is how soon, rather than will, we ever see our domestic waste fuelling our next sojourn to the supermarket?