With Shell signing a deal for hydrogen refuelling stations (HFSs) at three of its sites, and Toyota launching its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in the UK, a new kind of fuel is finally gaining a little traction in this country.

Oliver Bishop, general manager of hydrogen, Shell, said: "Shell has signed an agreement with ITM Power with the intention of deploying hydrogen refuelling facilities on three forecourts in the South East of England. FCEVs could be an important part of a low-carbon transport system they produce no emissions at the exhaust pipe, only water. If hydrogen is generated using power derived from low CO2 energy sources, such as natural gas with carbon capture and storage, FCEVs can be almost carbon free on a well-to-wheels basis. They can drive similar distances to combustion engines and take only minutes to refuel."

Shell’s sites won’t be the first available to UK consumers, that accolade goes to Sainsbury’s and its partner Air Products, who in March opened an HFS in the car park of its Hendon store, next to its petrol filling station. Shell’s partner ITM opened a filling station in Sheffield last month and is developing more sites within the M25.

All of these sites together with others developed by Honda, in Swindon, University of South Wales in Port Talbot and a mobile station in southern England from Fuel Cell Systems that is scheduled to launch in mid 2016 have received support from the Mobility scheme.

ITM Power CEO Graham Cooley explained: "The Mobility programme has helped sort out the chicken and egg problem of whether you first have the vehicles to create the demand or the infrastructure to provide the fuel."

A spokesman for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills said: "In March 2015, the government announced the successful bidders for funding to establish 12 publicly accessible hydrogen refuelling stations as a first step towards the development of an initial national network. This will include the building of new stations as well as upgrades to existing demonstrator stations including those in London, Swindon and Port Talbot.

"Some of these stations are already operational and those that are being upgraded will be completed by the end of this year and early 2016. The majority of the stations are being upgraded and those which are new will be operational by the end of 2016."

A report by McKinsey & Co for the government proposed a timescale of development of a network, with 65 HFSs by 2020 and reaching 1,150 by 2030, which it said would be sufficient to cover the UK and a projected fleet of 1.6 million FCEVs.

In order to achieve its network plans, said Cooley, ITM will need to work with forecourt operators.

He added: "ITM is seeking forecourt partners and independent forecourt partners are of great interest. We are interested in forecourt partners all over the UK, and they could be big groups or smaller independents."

If hydrogen takes off as a fuel, said Cooley, this will have a major significance for the forecourt sector. Up to now the government has devoted a lot of funding to the plug-in sector, where most users re-charge their batteries at home or work and offer very little scope for the forecourt sector. But if hydrogen becomes the fuel of choice, as petrol and diesel are progressively phased out, then motorists will still need to refuel at forecourts (see panel above).

The HFS models devised by Air Products and ITM Power differ in one major respect. At Hendon and its other HFSs, Air Products delivers the hydrogen to the sites, while ITM has an integrated unit which produces its own hydrogen through electrolysis of water.

Air Products argues that there is less equipment to go wrong at the site, meaning there is less prospect of disappointing consumers as the fledgling business develops, while Cooley points out his system means no deliveries all that is required is water and power something likely to appeal to dealers currently involved in battles over vapour recovery with the tax authorities.

ITM’s model also means there is no need for large storage tanks as with the system producing its own hydrogen, it only ever needs to hold a maximum of about one and a half days’ supply.

He said the entire unit is the size of two 20ft x 8ft shipping containers and ITM is currently talking to Shell about how to integrate it into a forecourt. The first HFS on a Shell site is likely to open within the M25 around the middle of next year, he added.

And as momentum slowly builds in the UK, the hydrogen sector is about to receive more encouragement from Europe. Groups driving its development in the UK, Germany, France and Scandinavia have set up an alliance, the Hydrogen Mobility Europe project (H2ME).

Rachel Smith, executive director, ITM Power and coordinator for the UK activities under H2ME, commented: "The H2ME project is a fantastic opportunity to develop the refuelling infrastructure in the UK. The project is perfectly timed to coincide with the introduction of fuel cell cars in Europe, enabling evaluation of end-user experiences of hydrogen stations and FCEVs.

"The UK consortium, led by ITM Power, is delighted to participate in this project and to demystify the role of hydrogen, show the readiness of the stations and vehicles, and to enable the widespread and rapid adoption of clean emission transport."

Hydrogen Fuel cell versus plug-in vehicles

Whether vehicles are plug-in or fuelled by hydrogen they are both electric vehicles. But while plug-in vehicles rely on charging a battery, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) generate the power that drives them.
Both types of vehicles have much stronger environmental credentials than their hydrocarbon-powered equivalents.
With the exception of plug-in hybrids, they generate no harmful emissions hydrogen vehicles produce water vapour which makes them particularly attractive in urban areas, especially after the recent scandal over emissions testing of Volkswagen engines. And if the electricity used to charge the battery or produce the hydrogen is from a renewable resource, they have a tiny carbon footprint.
Electric vehicles have stolen a march over hydrogen in the UK market, with vehicles being available earlier, with a greater choice of models, and with a much wider charging infrastructure. However, advocates of hydrogen say it has one killer advantage over plug-ins. Hydrogen vehicles can refuel in aroundthree minutes and this will give them a range of around 400 miles, while charging takes far longer and the range is shorter.
They also point to Toyota’s conversion to the cause of hydrogen, despite it having produced the best-selling hybrid plug-in, the Prius. When he announced the launch of the Mirai FCEV, Takeshi Uchiyamada, chairman of Toyota, commented: "We are so focused on hydrogen because at its most simplistic, oxygen and hydrogen makes water and power. The fuel cell vehicle is a social and economic gamechanger.
"Gasoline (petrol) has been the primary fuel of the past 100 years. Hydrogen will be the primary fuel game of the next hundred years. Our primary task is to provide our customers with fuel-cell cars at an affordable price."