Worldwide development of hydrogen as the transport fuel of the future is growing exponentially, with Europe a dynamic center of hydrogen activity. At the end of September, energy companies Shell Hydrogen and Total France announced a joint venture with automakers like BMW, Ford, General Motors Europe and Volkswagen to facilitate the first wave of hydrogen-powered vehicles and fuelling stations. "Now is the time to move forward to pave the way for the introduction of hydrogen-based mobility in Europe," they said in a statement.
Formed in 2000, the European Hydrogen Association has pulled together experts from seven countries to find and promote hydrogen technology across Europe, and its website, h2euro.org, is a clearinghouse for information—from the latest fuel cell vehicles in Shanghai to the first hydrogen filling station in Norway.
One pilot scheme currently underway is the Hydrogen Bus Initiative, a real-time testing of vehicles in nine European cities, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, London and Stuttgart. In Iceland, at a cost of seven million euros ($8.7 million), three state-of-the-art buses are operating on some of Reykjavik’s busiest routes. The Citaro buses, manufactured by DaimlerChrysler, use a stacked fuel cell arrangement to propel silent running electric motors with a total power output of 250 kilowatts (kW).
Hydrogen consultant Jñn Bjñrn Skülason of Icelandic New Energy (INE) described the advantage of testing in Iceland, "In the whole energy chain of Iceland there are absolutely no emissions of greenhouse gases because all of our electricity production is renewable," he says.
Creating a network of filling stations is one of the biggest obstacles to a hydrogen crossover, and mobile stations may have to provide an initial solution. Fuel for the Icelandic project is being generated and delivered by Shell. A corresponding program in London, run by BP, also includes a prototype filling station. BP’s David Nicholas said that the company wants to get a feel for what would be required in the infrastructure side of providing fuel for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Nicholas added, however, that BP isn’t focusing all research purely on hydrogen. "Hydrogen is a long-term potential option," Nicholas says, "but at the moment we need a lot of questions answered to get some idea of what a hydrogen economy might look like."
Not all the hydrogen projects in Europe involve fuel cells; some feature internal-combustion engines burning hydrogen. In Germany, BMW will be releasing a limited number of its dual-fuel Hydrogen 7 this year, which it hopes will become the first commercially available hydrogen-powered car. This adaptation of BMW’s upmarket luxury sedan can travel 125 miles burning liquid hydrogen or 300 miles on gasoline.
At the recent Hydrogen 7 press launch in Berlin, Dr. Klaus Draeger said BMW was fielding a dual-fuel vehicle "to give drivers the leeway needed in a world that does not yet provide a sufficient hydrogen infrastructure."
BMW Marketing Vice President Timm Kehler said that by supplying Hydrogen 7s to 100 "opinion leaders," the company hoped to show the world that hydrogen cars are a practical and very real possibility. The customers selected would have the cars for up to six months, he said. In U.S. trials, the company will pay for the hydrogen so its high cost does not become a burden to the test drivers. BMW Engineer Theodor Melcher added that the Hydrogen 7 was one way the company was meeting its 1990 pledge to reduce carbon emissions and meet the terms of the Kyoto protocol.
Berlin is one of the key European test cities, and there is a concentration of hydrogen cars and buses there. In the German state of Lower Saxony, the Volkswagen Technology Center Isenbütte has been equipped with a solar-powered hydrogen filling station. The facility is completely self-sufficient, producing electricity for the hydrogen process from a 530-square-foot solar panel. Water goes through an electrolysis process to separate hydrogen, which is then cleansed and fed into a 400-bar, high pressure storage tank from which vehicles are filled.
Together with the British company Intelligent Energy, PSA Peugeot Citroén is testing an Intelligent Energy Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell, intended for use in conjunction with PSA’s battery electric vehicle fleet, of which 10,000 have been built so far. PSA Program Director Bruno Costes says that Intelligent Energy’s advanced 10-kilowatt systems are ideal for existing electric vehicle designs, as they offer high performance with a very small carbon footprint.
Renault, another major French manufacturer, appeared recently at the World Hydrogen Energy Conference in Lyons, France and demonstrated both a new automotive fuel cell and a "reformer" to convert liquid fuels such as gasoline into hydrogen gas on board the vehicle. According to Renault, this removes the need for the bulky, high-pressure storage cylinders and the hydrogen infrastructure itself as hydrogen is created on-demand. Other manufacturers have rejected on-board reformers as too heavy and too costly.
Across the border in Italy, Fiat is developing both a fuel-cell vehicle running on hydrogen gas and a second version that uses a reformer and carries on-board methane. Fiat, like PSA Peugeot Citroén, has a long history of electric vehicle prototypes, which can be adapted to use fuel cells instead of batteries. With a range of around 140 miles, the hydrogen-equipped Seicento can travel slightly further on a tank of hydrogen than the new BMW Hydrogen Seven.
PSA collaborator Intelligent Energy has also built a fuel-cell motorbike, the Emissions Neutral Vehicle, or ENV. With a one-kilowatt fuel cell, the ENV can travel for 100 miles at speeds of up to 50 mph on one tank of compressed hydrogen. Intelligent Energy spokesperson Caroline Collet admits that the vehicle wasn’t designed for the mass market. "We very rapidly saw at the launch of the ENV that it had great commercial possibilities," she says. "The world definitely fell in love with the ENV and awards were showered on us."
Collet isn’t as worried about a refuelling infrastructure for hydrogen as she is about problems closer to home, "The thing about breaking boundaries and categories is that every single element of your product, from the business plan on down, is new," she says. "We’ve had to look at an enormous number of issues besides getting the hydrogen, from road legality to insurability and the manufacture of every single component part."
But despite the obstacles, Collet is one of many Europeans who see a hydrogen energy economy as a not-too-distant prospect. CONTACT: