UK hydrogen technology development
The UK has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. While the energy sector has begun implementing a decarbonisation strategy to reduce its environmental impact, the transport and industrial sectors have seen little improvement and continue to account for a large proportion of emissions. As such, the UK is using hydrogen technology as one of the solutions necessary to truly decarbonise its most energy intensive sectors.
UK hydrogen industry development drivers
The 2021 budget and industrial decarbonisation strategy promised £15bn to green sovereign bonds. £1bn of that bond is to be spent on innovative approaches to achieve net-zero, funding companies such as Wrightbus in their development of UK hydrogen technologies. However, this budget has received criticism for not prioritizing the climate crisis, failing to even mention the Green Homes Grant and National Nature service.
While the UK’s finalized Hydrogen Strategy will not be released until later in 2021, interest in hydrogen technology is already growing. The UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (UKHFCA), for example, has published its roadmap for green hydrogen deployment, illustrating the steps the UK government needs to take to achieve net zero by 2050, avoid economic turmoil, and secure its position as a leader in the global hydrogen economy.
Scotland leading the way in hydrogen policy
The Scottish continue to lead the UK’s green transition. In 2020, Scotland released their own hydrogen policy statement and also managed to increase renewable electricity production up to 93%, using mostly wind.
Scotland plans to continue their push toward sustainability with the goal of becoming the lowest cost hydrogen producer in the world by 2045. A couple initiatives like the BIG HIT Project and the Aberdeen Energy Transition Zone are paving the way for the UK’s hydrogen technology adoption. Appropriately, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be hosted in Glasgow, Scotland.
Additional UK hydrogen projects getting started
Smaller scale UK hydrogen projects are now also getting started, such as the housing project in Gateshead which is providing hydrogen fueled boilers and hobs to create a hydrogen town. Although these homes will initially be supplied with grey hydrogen, the project will make for an interesting test of feasibility. Those in the county of Fife are working on implementing the SGN H100 project, fitting 300 homes with free hydrogen boilers and appliances in an attempt to establish the first 100% green hydrogen network in the world.
Larger scale initiatives are also under consideration, such as blending hydrogen with the gas grid that is used to heat 83% of UK homes. This is viable with no need for consumer infrastructure changes up to around 20% hydrogen. If this change was implemented nationwide, it would prevent the annual release of 6 million tonnes of CO2.
A few problems that still need to be addressed
Such changes are an important first step to a transition towards net-zero. Blue hydrogen will also no doubt play a role in the development of the hydrogen economy in the UK. However, as validated by ITM Powers’ CEO, Graham Cooley, green hydrogen is central to global energy transition strategies to achieve net zero.
Experts also warn of a “that’ll do” attitude once large-scale blue hydrogen production is achieved. While this is a step in the right direction, it still does not address the fundamental issue of CO2 production – something that can only be solved with investment in renewable energy sources and infrastructure in the UK.
Advances in UK hydrogen technology and industry
While UK hydrogen policies may be lagging, UK hydrogen technology and engineering is not, and fuel cell technology continues to rapidly develop.
AFC Energy is forming many partnerships with companies such as Mace to provide zero emission generators for the construction sector. They have also made a deal to be the energy provider for the cars of the 2021 Extreme E off-road rally series. AFC’s alkaline fuel cell technology has the ability to use ammonia as a hydrogen source, which is proving to give them a competitive advantage.
Ceres Power completed a £181m round of funding to expand their market for their unique SOFC fuel cell stack technology for high power applications, while also exploring solid oxide electrolysis opportunities.
Intelligent Energy continues to develop their proton exchange membrane technology for mobile and static fuel cell systems.
On the hydrogen production technology side, ITM Power is maintaining momentum as they are signing deals with many international projects and forming partnerships with companies such as Linde, Shell, Optimal, and Ørsted.
Clean Power Hydrogen
Clean Power Hydrogen is developing unique membrane-free electrolyser technology and has recently joined Northern-Ireland’s B9 Energy. This technology eliminates the need for costly proton exchange membranes, reducing cost and complexity, which could prove to be a key step towards mass production of green hydrogen.
Johnson Matthey continues developing its electrochemical expertise, providing membrane and catalyst assemblies integral to many of the current technologies appearing in hydrogen projects across Europe.
Rolls-Royce continues to research alternative fuel technologies which will no doubt be the future of aviation travel, with short distance air travel projects such as Project Fresson already underway.
British universities are also driving the development of the hydrogen economy in the UK and beyond. Birmingham University is working on projects such as HydroFLEX to develop the UK’s first hydrogen powered train and H2GEAR to develop hydrogen technology to decarbonise air travel (lead by GKN Aerospace). UCL and Imperial continue fuel cell and hydrogen research, while also producing spin out companies like Bramble Energy and Ceres Power that aim to bring us closer to large scale hydrogen fuel cell production.
With appropriate support structures in place, UK hydrogen technology, particularly as used in Scotland, could be well positioned to play an influential role in the development of the global hydrogen economy.