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A hydrogen flame for the future

30 July 2021
Olympic torch July

Jordan Kelly, Sustainable Investing Team

With the Tokyo Olympics underway, we are all tentatively watching our athletes in their pursuit of that precious metal. However, there is another element of these games that excites us on the sustainable desk: hydrogen. The Olympic cauldron of previous games has run off fuels such as propane. This year’s flame, however, is powered by hydrogen, which makes sense as the sun seems to do a pretty good job with it! Even better, the torch’s hydrogen is produced in a factory in Fukushima that runs on renewable energy, highlighting the importance of sustainability in this year’s Olympics. This year, the athletes’ beds are made from recyclable cardboard, the medals are made from recycled electronics, the Olympic torches are made from aluminium waste and about 500 hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles will be used throughout the games. [1]

Hydrogen’s role in the green transition

The electric revolution is here, and rapid adoption of electric technologies is a key part of net-zero ambitions. However, hydrogen is rapidly emerging as another facilitator of the shift away from internal combustion engines. For some purposes, it may potentially be better than battery electric technology. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is not new but, until recently, it has not been economically viable. Technological developments have enabled hydrogen fuel cells to combat some of the main drawbacks of electric vehicles, including charging time and range, which still lag that of diesel and petrol cars. Most hydrogen fuel cells have a similar range to their petrol counterparts with the newly launched Toyota Mirai hydrogen car having a range of over 400 miles on a single tank that can be filled at a similar pace to a diesel or petrol car[2]. It doesn’t look awful either!

Why is hydrogen so important?

Pure electric technology has its limitations and the reality is that it won’t be a straight competition between battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies; instead they will both serve a purpose in the future energy mix. For many industrial processes and long-distance transportation, hydrogen could offer great prospects which battery cells may not be able to support. Hydrogen fuel cells also have potential uses within buildings. By producing both electricity and heat, static hydrogen fuel cells could be used to both heat spaces and provide electricity, vastly increasing the efficiency of the fuel cell.

Not just a pipe dream

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is already starting to be used more and more, and if you live or work in London, the nearest hydrogen fuel cell might be nearer to you than you think. A hydrogen fuel cell now sits atop the Palestra building in Southwark to help power and heat the building; it is expected to reduce building carbon emissions by 40%, whilst creating an annual saving of £90,000 on bills[3]. Transport for London has also rolled out 20 hydrogen London buses to accompany the current 500 strong electric bus fleet. The new hydrogen buses will be charged just once a day, a process that takes less than five minutes[4].

Just as we have seen with battery technology, efficiency and productivity have rapidly improved and we may just see a similar story with hydrogen. Nonetheless, as we know, infrastructure is key. Hydrogen itself is not a new concept and we are well versed in the ways of safe storage and transportation of the gas, making the possible rollout of improved infrastructure potentially much quicker and cheaper.

During the Olympics this summer, hydrogen will take centre stage, but we believe it has staying power. Over the next few years, it will remain a crucial element in the journey to net-zero.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-2020-torch-idUSKBN1ZQ0D5

[2] https://www.toyota.com/mirai/

[3] https://tfl.gov.uk/info-for/media/press-releases/2010/february/uks-biggest-hydrogen-fuel-cell-to-generate-greener-energy-for-tfl-and-lda

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-57578043


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