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Hydrogen power gets a kickstart

Industry news

Davos, Switzerland – With so much focus on battery technology and electric cars, hydrogen power has been forced to take a back seat on the sustainable energy front. But now, in an attempt to swing the spotlight back to this relatively clean and renewable resource, a "Hydrogen Council" has been launched.

It’s not just a group of mad scientists and lentil-loving hippies either. The council includes chief executives and chairmen from 13 major players in the energy and transport sectors, including BMW, Toyota, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Shell, Total and Kawasaki, among others. The Hydrogen Council plans to put this chemical element on the map as an alternative to fossil fuels in the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy system, not only for cars but across multiple industries.

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BMW's hydrogen-powered 5 Series GT.

Huge investments have already been made in the development of hydrogen power and some of the companies involved have fuel-cell vehicles on sale to the public, but further commercialisation will require even more backing and that’s exactly what the council is tasked with finding.

Current investments in hydrogen technology are valued at an estimate of €1.4 billion (R20.2 billion) a year, but members of the Hydrogen Council collectively represent total revenues of €1.07 trillion (R15.4 trillion) with access to 1.7 million employees around the world. Besides guiding key stakeholders, policy makers, international agencies and civil society toward a better understanding and acceptance of hydrogen power, the council’s goal is to tap those lucrative resources.

Huge potential 

“We need governments to back hydrogen with actions of their own," said Benoît Potier, chief executive of Air Liquide, "for example through large-scale infrastructure investment schemes.

Daimler AG’s Jochen Hermann agreed: “Fuel cell technology has huge potential for the energy and mobility sector. "The benefits for us are obvious: a long operating range and short refuelling stops as well as a broad spectrum of possible uses ranging from passenger cars to urban buses.”

Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada added: “The Hydrogen Council will exhibit responsible leadership in showcasing hydrogen technology and its benefits to the world. It will seek collaboration, co-operation and understanding from governments, industry and most importantly, the public.”

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars convert hydrogen into electricity in a chemical reaction that powers an electric motor. The only by-product of the process is water. So what’s the catch and why aren’t carmakers fully devoted to this form of energy?

Production problems

While expense has so far been the biggest hurdle, hydrogen production can be a pollutant considering that electricity is required to extract it from water. The council points out that electricity can be made from renewable resources such as wind, but this is in an ideal situation and in countries such as South Africa the main source of electricity comes from burning coal.

Like any other fuel, hydrogen poses risks if not properly handled or controlled. It’s highly flammable in gaseous form and needs extremely low temperatures to be kept in liquid form. In Europe, where hydrogen is becoming more readily available, refuelling stations cost three times as much to build as normal petrol stations.

But these are issues which the council is ready to tackle, armed with trillions.

Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd

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