Sheffield-based ITM Power is the leading manufacturer of electrolysis plant to make hydrogen, so it is no surprise that its CEO Graham Cooley sees a big future in the use of hydrogen to power heavy trucks.

ITM Power is the UK lead in H2ME, a €170m collaborative project involving 43 partners to develop fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies around Europe. In total, the project plans to open 49 hydrogen filling stations and put 1,400 hydrogen fuel cell cars and vans on the road by 2022.

ITM Power already has eight hydrogen stations in operation or in progress in the UK and opened its first publicly accessible hydrogen station in September 2015 at the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham. The station was the first in the UK to use excess wind energy to generate hydrogen on-site using electrolysis.

Its station at the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence (CEME), a not-for-profit education and skills organisation in Rainham, East London, uses excess solar electricity to generate the hydrogen.

The fourth station was opened in February 2017, and was the first hydrogen station in the UK to be located on a forecourt, Shell's Cobham motorway service area on the southern stretch of the M25.

“ITM Power makes hydrogen energy systems to produce green hydrogen,” says Cooley, pictured. “There is no carbon in the whole supply chain. The electrolyser splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. We connect directly to renewable power or we can use the electrolyser to balance the electricity grid. We vent the oxygen and use the hydrogen as a transport fuel.

Graham Cooley

“The refuelling station in Sheffield is connected directly to wind power or we connect directly to solar as in the refuelling station at CEME or we buy renewable energy contracts.”

ITM Power works closely with industrial gases company Linde to install hydrogen filling stations; Linde makes the compression, storage and dispensers and ITM Power makes the electrolysers and builds the system.

Cooley says there are two important strategies for hydrogen refuelling stations. “One is building a country-wide infrastructure so you can have coverage for passenger vehicles and the other is the return to base principle,” he says. “The idea is that you strategically position refuelling stations and the fleet operator has specific stations where they always go back to refuel. This will be true of buses, trucks, trains and ships.”

A fuel cell electric car typically uses just 5kg of hydrogen to drive 350 miles. Heavy trucks obviously need more energy and may use 100kg of hydrogen for the same distance so they need larger tanks and fuelling stations. “We have a 3MW refuelling station on the Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham to refuel buses and cars,” says Cooley. “We are looking more and more at combining them so they will do buses, heavy lorries and cars.”

With any electric drivetrain the vehicle needs an energy storage system and usually there are three options: a super capacitor; a battery; or a fuel cell with a hydrogen tank.

“With hydrogen you have all three onboard,” explains Cooley. “It is a hybridised system for energy storage. You use the super capacitor for a big burst of energy for take off to get the vehicle moving, and you use the battery for acceleration and for regenerative charging. A fuel cell EV always has a battery onboard to recover energy as you brake. The fuel cell is for when you’re gliding – the most efficient way to use the fuel cell is when the vehicle is at constant velocity. This combination gives EVs the highest performance.”

Compared with full battery EVs, refuelling times much lower with a fuel cell. “With a truck we are looking at a four to six minutes refuelling time - and ranges are far longer,” he says. “A battery stores all its energy inside and if you need a longer range you need more and more batteries and so the weight goes up and it becomes self-limiting. With hydrogen to increase the range you just make the tank bigger. That means you can get very high ranges.”

With any alternative fuel the industry faces a classic chicken and egg dilemma – with no vehicles on the road no one will invest in refuelling infrastructure but with no refuelling stations operators are slow to buy vehicles.

US start up Nikola has gained some credibility by teaming up with IVECO to develop its battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and both Toyota and Hyundai are already testing heavy duty vehicles powered by hydrogen.

“There is a lot of bluster but Toyota and Hyundai actually have vehicles on the road,” says Cooley. “We are not talking about development vehicles any more – those vehicles are being tested for performance.”

Another barrier to the adoption of new, clean technology is the high upfront cost of the vehicles before they get into volume production but Cooley is optimistic that these costs will quickly start to fall.

“Hydrogen will not always be more expensive,” he says. “Fuel cells have come down in price very considerably and hydrogen is lower cost than petrol or diesel. The full life cost can be lower because there are far fewer moving parts.”

Another development that could reduce carbon emissions from the growing number of trucks powered by natural gas is to blend hydrogen with methane.

“We are working with Cadent and Northern Gas Networks on HyDeploy, a power to gas energy storage project,” says Cooley. “This is taking excess renewable power, converting it to hydrogen and putting it directly into the gas grid.”

HyDeploy is a £6.8m project, funded by energy regulator Ofgem, to establish the potential for blending up to 20% hydrogen into the normal gas supply to reduce carbon emissions. HyDeploy is a year-long trial with blended gas on part of the University of Keele’s gas network to discover how much hydrogen can be used with no changes to existing domestic appliances. ITM Power is supplying the electrolyser system.

“This is the first project injecting significant percentages of hydrogen into the gas grid,” says Cooley. “We are starting with a closed gas grid in Keele before going to the wider gas grid.

“It important to remember that prior to 1969 our gas grid was 55% hydrogen. That was called town gas before we converted everyone to North Sea gas. We don’t want to do that project again – if we can stabilise on 20% hydrogen you don’t need to change the gas burners in anyone’s houses. If you look at decarbonising heating hydrogen really is the only solution. It is not like we are doing something we don’t know all about from the past.”

Blending hydrogen and methane to make ‘hythane’ can also be done at a refuelling station, but Cooley points out that the vehicle tank must be designed and certified to accept this hydrogen-methane fuel.

Hydrogen is of course only green if the power used to make it comes from renewable sources, something that the UK has pledged to achieve by 2050.

“We are today producing in the UK roughly 30% of our power from renewable sources,” says Cooley. “The UK is incredibly well positioned – we have the richest wind resource in Europe across Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North Sea facing coastline.”

Getting to net zero carbon will also require energy storage, to buffer the intermittent renewable power from solar and wind and to allow transport operators to access the energy in a usable form.

“They are larger problems than decarbonising electricity,” says Cooley. “It will need joined up thinking – if you store excess renewable power by making hydrogen and putting it in the gas grid, the gas grid becomes a huge tank of renewable hydrogen.

“Building wind turbines to make hydrogen makes energy renewable and it gives us fuel security because we are making our own gas. Today we import 50% of our natural gas as LNG and I would rather replace that with renewable gas made in the UK.

“The UK government needs to act. The Commission for Climate Change is calling for between 2GW and 17GW of electrolysis for energy storage by 2050. So we have 30 years to build up to 17GW of electrolysis which is a very significant amount. ITM Power is the only electrolyser supplier in the UK and we have just announced the world’s largest electrolyser factory in Sheffield.

“The government needs to define a tariff to put hydrogen into the gas grid and it needs to include hydrogen in the renewable transport fuel obligation. Those two things would make a significant difference to the hydrogen industry in the UK and drive the industry forward.”