2024 Annual Boulton & Watt Lecture – 29th February 2024 ‘HYDROGEN – Its role in the Delivery of Net Zero’

The above event was hosted at the University of Birmingham, with thanks to Professor Martin Freer, a British Physicist and Nuclear Scientist. Martin Freer is the Director of the Energy Research Accelerator and Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute at the University of Birmingham. He also very ably chaired this meeting of minds with significant discussion. The meeting was well attended with over 60 people present for the in-person meeting.

Quoting Professor Freer, “The rise of interest in Hydrogen as part of the energy mix has been precipitous. Its attraction is that it can be used in ……. decarbonisation of industry and decarbonisation of transport. The West Midlands already has been pioneering through its hydrogen buses refuelled at the UK’s leading hydrogen station at Tyseley. However, hydrogen is expensive and is struggling to find its place…..through hearing from experts in academia and industry, [we can] explore how and where hydrogen will play a role in the delivery of net zero by 2050.”

The first speaker at the meeting was Professor Sara Walker who is a Professor of Energy and Co-Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute, having moved to warmer climes in Birmingham from Newcastle. She is also Director of the EPSRC Hub on Hydrogen Integration for Accelerated Energy Transitions (Hi-ACT), and Co-Director for the UKRI Energy Demand Research Centre. While in her post at Newcastle, she also delivered a presentation at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. (EPSRC = Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; UKRI – UK Research and Innovation).

The second speaker was Mr Dennis Hayter, who was appointed Chair of the Board at CENEX, an independent, not-for-profit consultancy and research organisation into low-emission technology based in Loughborough. An economist by profession, he was involved in founding the UK fuel cell power technology company Intelligent Energy in 2001, where he served as Vice President in Business Development. He has also been the Vice Chair of the Hydrogen London group; Chair of the UK H2Mobility grouping; and a Director of the USA Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA) and H2USA. (CENEX = Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell technologies).

The third speaker was Mr David Dundas, who is a Trustee and one of the more senior Members of The Lunar Society and Lead of the Climate Change Working Party. Qualified BSc Chemistry and Biochemistry from St Andrews and trained as an oil/gas well service engineer by Schlumberger and Dowell-Schlumberger. He has worked with Texaco Europe in refinery planning and ship movements. He has managed a reagents factory of Technicon Belgium and worked in the Energy Products marketing department of Dow Corning Europe. He had managed his own company Lion Industries UK Ltd for 25 years. David Dundas is well versed in the subject of energy demand and supply. Coming from an oil and gas background, he has a fantastic overview of what the energy markets and their requirements are with a view to future demands and developments.

The first speaker, Professor Sara Walker, gave a well-illustrated presentation. She stated that in the last 50 years, since the 1970s, there has been only a 12% reduction (from 88% to 76%) in fossil-fuel use in the British energy supply market. There are only another 26 years till 2050, when Britain is due to meet Net Zero targets. This discrepancy of figures must help concentrate minds to achieve this very much desired and important target to help prevent catastrophic Climate Change. Sara gave examples of various scenarios that have been designed by National Grid (the ‘Grid’) to investigate how this important target can be achieved. The Grid itself has not had any substantial improvement for many years. To maintain the steady supply of electricity across the whole of Britain will require a more substantial Grid, which will require significant capital investment. If, and when, Natural Gas is phased out as an energy source, it is envisaged that the energy supply will be from electricity, which will be generated in a networked or non-networked pattern of multiple satellite locations by wind, solar, possibly hydro, tidal and also nuclear stations. There are also some connector links with Europe and further beyond. Hydrogen can be produced at the various satellite sites by Electrolysis and transported to the areas where the energy stored in the Hydrogen (as ‘energy carrier’) can be used in Fuel Cells (the reverse process of Electrolysis) to produce electricity which is then distributed to more local areas. Besides by Electrolysis, the Methane Reformation Process, using some of the Natural Gas that will still be available, can be another process to produce Hydrogen leading to its further use as above. (For clarification, Hydrogen can be stored and transported, depending on its end use, in a compressed gaseous state, in a liquefied form or as ammonia). This shows that Hydrogen can be used in conjunction with Renewables to meet the power needs of Britain. Sara then proceeded to discuss the relative benefits of Hydrogen versus batteries as storage for electric power, and the use of Hydrogen in Transport, especially road-freight and marine).

The second speaker was Mr Dennis Hayter. In a shorter presentation, he gave his views and ideas on Fuel Cell Technology, with which he has had a significant association (see paragraph above introducing him). He discussed his perspective (and possible future) of Fuel Cell Technology. He is a strong proponent of the use of Fuel Cell Technology in Air Transport, Road Transport and Ground applications leading to Zero emissions. Through a fuel cell, there is no combustion (burning at high temperature) of the fuel, resulting in the absence of harmful by-products of combustion such as Nitrous Oxide (NOx). Hydrogen is currently for peaceful uses in some unmanned air vehicles (UAVs – drones). Manned flight using Hydrogen has also existed since 2008. Fuel Cell Motor vehicles are also available as in 2011 – 2012 when a fleet of such cars were used during the London Olympics, subsequently being used as taxis around London. Fuel cells are also installed in some automated vehicles in warehouses transporting stock to where it’s needed, and also powering static machinery in milking sheds. Fuel cells are also suitable and available as the main electricity source (with intermediate storage batteries) in Heavy Duty Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) such as Buses, large to medium sized Trucks and Lorries, delivery and smaller vehicles, that require to be serviceable during their working day for ‘double shift’ working (approx. 14 – 18 hours/day) – a length of time and subsequent distances that are not possible with puree electric vehicles (i.e. battery only).

Hydrogen is also the main fuel that is used (combusted) in the achievement of Space Exploration for rocket propulsion. Although this is not a main consideration for Earth use, it does indicate how much energy can be stored/supplied in/as Hydrogen. Dennis also gave examples of projects that his company has set up in remote locations in Africa and India where a bank of Fuel Cells have been supplied by locally produced Hydrogen through an Electrolyser powered by Solar Panels. Using this method, the projects have produced and set up a ‘Micro Grid’ that provided the locally required Electricity. (Author’s comment: to bring the above into context, while the above examples of static use of Fuel Cells seem quite remote and exotic, there are currently available in the UK, Europe and beyond, Fuel Cell Powered Electricity Generators that replace their diesel-powered counterparts to provide power and lighting at events and building sites, where the electricity required will necessarily be off-Grid and for a relatively short time).

Last, but not least, the Lunar Society’s own Climate Change Working Party (LSCCWP) Lead, Mr David Dundas, as described above was the third speaker. He addressed the audience for a shorter time still, making the point that they ideas and technology presented are very acceptable and possible. However, both in the UK and globally, we are very short of time to reach the necessary goals by the year 2050. He proposed that, on a global scale, areas of high prevalent sunshine with available associated agriculturally unusable land (e.g. deserts in Africa and Australia) can be used to produce Hydrogen to be stored as Ammonia that can then be used as the main transport medium at its eventual destination. David also made a significant point. There are very few hydrogen filling stations in the UK supplying fossil-free hydrogen at an affordable price, i.e. less than £10/kg. The expensive source of electricity from the Grid, presently at the Tyseley (Birmingham) plant, is making the production of Hydrogen in Birmingham uneconomical. This is holding up the conversion of heavy-goods diesel-powered vehicles and trains to hydrogen which is more energy efficient and much quicker to refuel than battery only power. It is likely that the supply of affordable hydrogen will require local renewable energy to power the local electrolysers directly, bypassing the expensive grid electricity.

Many questions and further discussion followed as the three speakers above formed a panel to take and respond to questions. Mention was made of Alstom and Porterbrook companies that are involved in the conversion of diesel-powered trains to Hydrogen Fuel Cell Power to run their electric motors. Another issue that was raised was to do with the importance of bringing the Hydrogen fuel AND vehicles to market at the same time, as mentioned above by David Dundas and reiterated by Martin Freer. Interestingly, also, one source of Hydrogen, the presence of which is not widely publicised is that of naturally occurring ‘geo-locked’ Hydrogen – otherwise known as Gold or White Hydrogen. This is electrolysis free but may well be expensive because of the cost of extraction. There is also doubt about its potential purity.

Further points were made as Sara Walker emphasised the need that, although the discussion has been about Hydrogen, the one main point is that we are needing to reduce our overall energy demand by significantly more efficient buildings and transport – necessitating definite social change.

Following the end of the meeting, many participants used the short time available thereafter to meet colleagues and network and sharing ideas – a substantially successful event in The Lunar Society Calendar.
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