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Hydrogen: the most abundant element in the universe packs three times more energy and up to five times more mileage per kg than non-renewable fuels such as petrol. Hydrogen’s potential in the transport sector has always been promising. Against the backdrop of the current climate crisis, replacing tailpipe CO₂ emissions with pure water vapour sounds almost too good to be true.

Nevertheless, for years hydrogen has been facing obstacles, in particular difficulties related to safe and cost-effective transport, storage and distribution. Experts now say that these hurdles have been sufficiently overcome and that it’s time to distribute the clean fuel of tomorrow at the pump today.

Leading hydrogen storage supplier

Where on-site production is not a possibility, the first step is to store the hydrogen before transporting it from the production site to a fuelling station. Norwegian company Hexagon Purus is a leader in storage and transport solutions, supplying some of the world’s largest industrial gas companies.

Director of Sales and Marketing, Jørn Helge Dahl, believes that the key to Hexagon Purus’ success – and that of the green hydrogen revolution in general – hinges upon bringing operational costs down. For storage and transport, this begins with weight.

“Most industrial applications currently use steel tubes for hydrogen road transport,” explains Dahl. “We’ve developed a Type 4 composite lightweight cylinder that is up to 75 per cent lighter.”

Optimising hydrogen transport

To compensate for the greater weight of steel cylinders, traditional transports use as few cylinders as possible, resulting in an inefficient use of container space. With dramatically lighter cylinders, however, Hexagon Purus’ solution can effectively use many, smaller cylinders.

“Smaller cylinders enable the most optimal use of space in the transport module. This reduces the total number of transports required for the same amount of hydrogen, and thereby reduces costs.” — Jørn Helge Dahl, Hexagon Purus

With payload volumes optimised, the next step is to fit as much gas as possible into each cylinder. To this end, Hexagon Purus is rolling out cylinders that will increase pressure from 300 to 380 bar and is developing 500 bar cylinders that would provide up to three or four times the payload common today.

Besides increased weight, a drawback of steel canisters is that they are very costly to maintain, needing to be fully refurbished every 10 years. Many choose to simply replace them. Using more cylinders per transport, one might presume greater maintenance costs with Hexagon Purus’ solution. However, Dahl says the opposite is true.

“Some simple elements like O-rings may need replacing during periodic testing. But the costly part, the cylinders themselves, have an unlimited lifetime,” he points out.

“That’s why we encourage our clients to use a long-term perspective and consider the substantial cost savings over time.”

Incidentally, cost savings associated with reduced cylinder weight, increased payload capacity and product longevity also translate into a further reduction of green hydrogen’s overall environmental impact.

Safety at hydrogen fuelling stations

Industrial hydrogen applications have a long history of safe use. But, as with all things new, concern arises once a product first enters society at large.

On certain parameters hydrogen could have a higher risk profile than other common fuels. It is an exceedingly small molecule, for example, making leak prevention more difficult. But experts largely agree that these risks have been successfully mitigated.

Thorsten Herbert, Director of Market Development and Public Affairs at Nel, explains:

“This is actually one of the transportation sector’s greatest success stories.”

“The connectors, protocols and safety measures behind hydrogen have been rigorously developed, tested, and harmonised internationally from the start. With safe procedures in place, the risk of hydrogen is now much the same as for any other fuel.”

Complete hydrogen filling station solution

Headquartered in Norway, Nel is the world’s largest manufacturer of electrolysers used in green hydrogen production. It also manufactures other products within the hydrogen value chain, including a complete hydrogen fuelling station currently found in over a dozen nations worldwide.

Yet these are extremely rare, meaning most have yet to encounter a hydrogen fuelling station. Herbert explains what a consumer could expect on their first visit:

“At the pump, the customer doesn’t really notice any difference with hydrogen versus petrol. Similar fuelling time, similar range per tank and in many places the cost is subsidised to similar levels as petrol to help the market to reach scale.”

A substantial R&D effort has gone into the solution in order to make such a smooth fuelling experience. After each refuel, Nel’s patented compressor technology quickly returns the tanks to the correct pressure ahead of the next refill. Nel has increased total daily refill capacity as much as tenfold over the last decade.

Taking the lead in hydrogen distribution

Safety, logistics and engineering hurdles have been overcome. Now the last thing standing in the way of the proliferation of hydrogen fuelling stations is much harder to crack.

“The real challenge here is the classic chicken and egg scenario. Consumers today are not choosing hydrogen cars because there are so few models available. Car manufacturers, meanwhile, say there’s too little demand to justify developing new hydrogen models,” says Herbert.

Hydrogen fuelling stations suffer from the same circular reasoning. There is little incentive to build a station when there are not enough hydrogen cars on the road. Meanwhile, there is low demand for hydrogen cars since there are currently so few fuelling stations.

Though not devoid of risk, Herbert argues that the only way to escape this conundrum is by taking the lead.

“Our new manufacturing plant is capable of producing 300 filling stations per year, at a time when there’s still only 80 new stations opened a year globally,” he says.

“We’re taking a risk, but it is also an investment that positions Nel strongly for the upcoming market ramp-up.”

Heavy-duty transport will be fuelled by hydrogen

Herbert points to the ambitious EU Hydrogen Strategy, which calls for a massive upscaling of green hydrogen production and implementation in industry and transport, as sufficient grounds for taking such a risk. Together with the newly established and well-financed funding pipeline known as the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, the hydrogen sector is already seeing unprecedented activity, and actors across Europe are scrambling to find applications.

Hexagon Purus’ current production is evenly split between industrial gas clients and mobility clients. But it is the latter who are now seeing exciting development as the decarbonisation of the global transport sector begins.

In 2020, Hexagon Purus signed a framework agreement with Danish Everfuel that will see it entering markets like Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway to distribute hydrogen between production sites and filling stations.

“The heavy-duty transport sector is especially picking up speed,” says Jørn Helge Dahl at Hexagon Purus.

More practical than batteries

He explains that hydrogen is currently much more practical for larger vehicles than batteries because meeting payload capacity and range requirements means increasing battery size and recharging time. This eventually becomes uneconomical, which is why larger municipal vehicles such as buses, delivery vehicles and waste collection vehicles are witnessing rapid hydrogen adoption.

Hydrogen cars still need a breakthrough, however, and the few currently on the road are driven by pioneering individuals and companies. But as more models come on the market, Nel’s Thorsten Herbert also eyes competitive advantages with hydrogen that could cut into the EV market share:

“It’s much easier to cover a local area with hydrogen stations rather than fast chargers for EVs. And unless the electric grid is powered by emissions-free renewables, EVs have indirect greenhouse gas emissions. Vehicles powered by green hydrogen, however, emit only water.”

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