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Driving the hydrogen revolution

4 min read

As climate change and global warming become more urgent by the day, the latest episode of the Zero Pressure podcast discusses how hydrogen as a clean energy could help the world end its damaging dependence on fossil fuels for transport, heating and industrial production.

“Hydrogen has an absolutely critical part to play in the move of the planet towards net-zero carbon emissions,” says automotive executive and engineer Dr Andy Palmer, the latest guest on Helen Sharman’s Zero Pressure podcast.

That may be news to those who believe that electric vehicles (EVs) and electric power are the future, but Palmer knows what he’s talking about, from both the electrification and hydrogen perspectives.

As a leading figure in the automotive industry for more than 40 years, he has been described as “the grandfather of EVs” due to his role in the creation of the Nissan Leaf, perhaps the most prominent example of the first generation of electric cars. He also led the hydrogen car team at Nissan, during which time the company collaborated with Mercedes Benz and Ford on a hydrogen fuel cell project.

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Cost and clean production challenges

Andy Palmer tells Helen Sharman that the main barriers at present to hydrogen becoming more widely adopted are the twin challenges of producing hydrogen in a clean enough way, and the cost of doing so.

“We need to create clean, so-called ‘green’ hydrogen without CO2, not just the ‘grey’ byproduct of oil and gas,” he says, referring to two of the three types of hydrogen (the other being ‘blue’ hydrogen that has been scrubbed clean of carbon dioxide). “But green hydrogen accounts for just 1% of hydrogen production, and that’s holding hydrogen back, as well as the cost of fuel-cell technology.”

Nonetheless, with all the insights from his long automotive industry experience, Palmer is confident about the place of hydrogen as a pillar of the new, fossil-free transport system, even if it may be less prominent than electrification.

“Light vehicles will be EVs but I think the bigger and heavier vehicles such as heavy trucks will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells and hot hydrogen, due to the inefficiency of electric batteries. We can also use internal combustion engines for the most part to combust hydrogen and oxygen, which will reduce the capex (capital expenditure).”

Palmer sees the latter as a bridging technology until fuel-cell technology becomes scalable, and thus provides the volume of demand that makes it affordable for the mass market. He mentions how this has been happening with electric vehicles in recent years, especially in countries such as Norway that have offered incentives in the form of subsidies that skew the market in favour of this cleaner technology. Could this be a lesson to others with regards to promoting hydrogen?

A network of technologies rather than a single solution

Heating, industrial energy, new feedstock uses and power generation are all possible areas where hydrogen can replace fossil fuels. However, Palmer says the supportive political and regulatory landscapes are not there yet, not least because regulation tends to follow technological development and hydrogen is still a nascent technology.

If he has one overall message, though, whether it concerns transport or wider uses of hydrogen, Andy Palmer says that “We can’t pin all our hopes on one technology. There’ll always be unattended consequences for any technology, so let scientists and engineers innovate, and let ‘Darwinism’ work”, he says, so that they can come up with the best answers through trial and error of a network of different technologies rather than focusing on a single solution.

But, above all, whichever way hydrogen ends up being part of our future energy needs, Palmer says that it’s a problem that we must start solving right away, rather than leaving it to our children and grandchildren.

“It’s our problem now,” he says. “Maybe that’s good because it’s this generation that needs to do something about it.”

“If I were ‘king of the world’, I’d not be looking at distant time horizons of 2050 or 2070, but a time horizon of 2025/2030. It’s important that the work, its scientists, its politicians and its engineers dedicate their capabilities and intellectual properties towards changing the way we use energy. We’ve got to save the planet because we live here and we don’t have any alternative.”

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This podcast in Imperial College London and Saab’s Zero Pressure series is available on most podcast platforms including Spotify, Google and Apple.

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