Transport and the Hydrogen Economy

(Updated May 2020)

  • Hydrogen is seen as a future transport fuel, but wide use is probably further off than popularly perceived.
  • In the short term, hybrid and full electric vehicles will substantially increase the demand for base-load power from grid systems.
  • The use of hydrogen in the production of transport fuels from crude oil is increasing rapidly, and is vital where tar sands are the oil source.
  • Hydrogen can be combined with CO2 to make methanol or dimethyl ether which are likely to become important transport fuels.
  • Nuclear energy can be used to make hydrogen electrolytically, and in the future high-temperature reactors are likely to be used to make it thermochemically.
  • The energy demand for hydrogen production could exceed that for electricity production today.

The information page on Nuclear Process Heat for Industry includes hydrogen and methanol production. 

Nuclear power is relevant to road transport and motor vehicles in three respects:

  • Plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles use off-peak power from the grid for recharging.
  • Nuclear heat can be used for production of liquid hydrocarbon fuels from coal.
  • Hydrogen for oil refining, for methanol, and for future fuel cell vehicles may be made electrolytically, and in the future, thermochemically using high-temperature reactors.

Hybrid electric vehicles are powered by batteries and an internal combustion engine, the batteries largely being recharged by the internal combustion engine. Higher capital cost is offset by slightly lower running costs and lower emissions. Better batteries will allow greater use of electricity in driving, and also mean that charging them can be done from mains power, as well as from the motor and regenerative braking. These plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEV) are becoming practical and economic today, joining the better-established full electric vehicles (EV), which have a niche market. See also paper on Electricity and Cars.

Widespread use of PHEVs and EVs which get much of their energy from the electricity grid overnight at off-peak rates would increase electricity demand and mean that a greater proportion of a country's electricity could be generated by base-load plant and hence at lower average cost. Where the plant is nuclear, it will also be emission-free.

In April 2020 the Swiss electrical engineering company ABB signed an agreement with Hydrogène de France (HDF) to optimize fuel cell manufacturing to produce a megawatt-scale power plant for marine vessels to be built at HDF’s factory in Bordeaux, France. The arrangement will draw upon Ballard Power Systems proton exchange membrane fuel cell technology. ABB said that hydrogen was not the sole energy carrier under consideration. “Although hydrogen is generally preferred because of its greater efficiency, ammonia and methanol with higher volumetric energy density makes it a good choice for deep-sea shipping. [It is likely] we will see companies using a mix of energy carriers depending on their needs.”

While thermochemical production of hydrogen is a long-term objective, it will require dedicated nuclear plants running at high temperatures. Electrolytic hydrogen production however can use off-peak capacity of conventional nuclear reactors.

Hydrogen today

Hydrogen is already a significant chemical product, about half of annual production being used in making nitrogen fertilisers via the Haber process and about one-quarter to convert low-grade crude oils (especially those from tar sands) into transport fuels*. Both uses are increasing significantly. Some is used for other chemical processes such as methanol production, but this does not need to be pure. World consumption is about 70 million tonnes** of pure hydrogen, growing steadily. There is a lot of experience handling hydrogen on a large scale, though it is not entirely straightforward.

* e.g. (CH)n tar sands or (CH1.5)n heavy crude to (CH2)n transport fuel. Upgrading heavy crude oil and tar sands requires 3 to 4 kilograms of hydrogen per barrel (159 litres) of product.

** in thermal terms @ 121 MJ/kg: 8470 PJ, equivalent to all of US nuclear electricity.

About 76% of pure hydrogen is made from natural gas and 23% from coal. This gives rise to 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually – each tonne of hydrogen produced gives rise to at least 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Electrolysis accounts for only 2% (IEA, 2019)1.

Like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier (but not a primary energy source). If oil becomes more expensive, hydrogen may eventually replace it as a transport fuel and in other applications. This development becomes more likely as fuel cells are developed, with hydrogen as the preferred fuel, though portable storage at vehicle scale is a major challenge. Meanwhile hydrogen can be used in internal combustion engines, and it can also be reacted with carbon dioxide at 300-400°C to give methane, using the exothermic Sabatier process.* See also section below on making methanol from hydrogen and CO2.

* CO2 + 4H2 ⇒ CH4 + 2 H2O. This seems of more relevance to space travel than transport on Earth, though on a small scale it will scrub CO2 and CO from hydrogen streams for fuel cells.

If natural gas also becomes expensive, or constraints are put on carbon dioxide emissions, non-fossil sources of hydrogen will become necessary. Sun, wind, hydro and nuclear are all possible.

Like electricity, hydrogen for transport use will tend to be produced near where it is to be used. This will have major geo-political implications as industrialised countries become less dependent on oil and gas from distant parts of the world.

Electricity and hydrogen are convertible one to the other as energy carriers. However, the overall efficiency of electricity - hydrogen - fuel cell - electricity is no more than 40%.

In the short term, hydrogen can be produced economically by electrolysis of water in off-peak periods, enabling much greater utilisation of base-load generating plants, including nuclear ones, or utilising surplus from intermittent renewables. In future, a major possibility is decomposition of water by direct use of heat from nuclear energy, using a chemical process enabled by high-temperature reactors (see following section).

World oil refineries and chemical plants today have a demand for hydrogen* which exceeds the US nuclear output in thermal terms. The rapidly-growing demand for hydrogen favours technologies with low fuel costs, and the scale of hydrogen demand is appropriate to its production by nuclear reactors. Limited hydrogen pipeline networks already exist, allowing production facilities to be some way from users.

* 50 million tonnes in thermal terms @ 121 MJ/kg: 6050 PJ, equivalent to 70% of US nuclear electricity.

In the USA, 11 Mt/yr of hydrogen production has thermal power of 48 GWt, and consumes nearly 5% of US natural gas usage, releasing 77 Mt CO2 annually. The use of hydrogen for all US transport would require some 200 Mt/yr of hydrogen*, though this scenario is a long way off.

* 89.88g hydrogen occupies 1 m3 at STP; 1 tonne hydrogen occupies 11,126 m3 at STP.
Each tonne of hydrogen from natural gas gives rise to 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

All this points to the fact that while a growing hydrogen economy already exists, linked to the worldwide chemical and refining industry, and potentially for steelmaking, a much greater one is in sight if storage and handling problems at automotive scale can be overcome. The development of affordable fuel cells will also be vital. Some 1500 fuel cell electric vehicles were on the road by the end of 2016, nearly 3400 were sold in 2017, and the EV30@30 campaign envisages 30% of new car sales being EVs by 2030. With new uses for hydrogen as a fuel, the primary energy demand for its production may approach that for electricity production.

Forecasts of hydrogen demand by 2050 vary from very little through 8 EJ (IRENA) to 59 EJ (Hydrogen Council), plus 19 EJ as industrial feedstock. In September 2018 EU energy ministers signed the Hydrogen Initiative, a non-binding political declaration of support for hydrogen development.

Meanwhile, a significant increase in electricity demand is likely due to wider adoption of plug-in hybrid and full electric (PHEV and EV) cars. Charging the batteries of these from mains power will be cheaper than using any internal combustion engines. This demand is becoming significant, and well within the planning horizons for new generating plants.

See: US National Renewable Energy Laboratory information; and Hydrogen Data on the HyWeb website.

Nuclear energy for hydrogen production

Nuclear power already produces electricity as a major energy carrier. It is well placed, though beyond the capability of most current plants, to produce hydrogen if this becomes a major energy carrier also.

The evolution of nuclear energy's role in hydrogen production over perhaps three decades is seen to be:

  • Electrolysis of water, using off-peak capacity,
  • Use of nuclear heat to assist steam reforming of natural gas,
  • High-temperature electrolysis of steam, using heat and electricity from nuclear reactors, then
  • High-temperature thermochemical production using nuclear heat.

The first three are essentially cogeneration. The last three are described in detail in the paper in this series: Nuclear Process heat for Industry. See also 2013 IAEA technical report: Hydrogen Production Using Nuclear Energy.

Use of hydrogen directly as fuel for transport

Burning hydrogen produces only water vapour, with no carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. However, it is far from being an energy-dense fuel, and this limits its potential use for motor vehicles. By March 2014, there were 186 hydrogen refuelling stations worldwide, 26 of these in Germany, and mainly used in trials of fuel cell vehicles.

Hydrogen can be burned in a normal internal combustion engine, and some test cars are thus equipped. Trials in aircraft have also been carried out. In the immediate future the internal combustion engine is the only affordable technology available for using hydrogen. announced hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles. For instance, one hundred BMW Hydrogen 7s have been built, and 25 were used in test programs in the USA. The cars covered more than 2 million kilometres in test programs around the globe. BMW is the only car manufacturer to have used hydrogen stored in its liquid state. The low energy density of 10.1 MJ/L is the limiting factor (cf 3.5 times this for petrol), coupled with the need to cool the 170-litre tank to minus 253°C. BMW has abandoned this development and is collaborating with Toyota on fuel cell vehicles, with a view to marketing a joint mid-sized platform and fuel cell stack by 2020.

For transport, hydrogen's main use will be in fuel cells. A fuel cell is conceptually a refuelable battery, making electricity as a direct product of a chemical reaction. But where the normal battery has all the active ingredients built in at the factory, fuel cells are supplied with fuel from an external source and oxygen from the air. They catalyse the oxidation of hydrogen directly to electricity at relatively low temperatures and the claimed theoretical efficiency of converting chemical to electrical energy to drive the wheels is about 60% (or more). However, in practice about half that has been achieved, except for the higher-temperature solid oxide fuel cells – 46%.

Apart from carbon-free production and then distribution to users, on-board storage is the principal problem for hydrogen as an automotive fuel – it is impossible to store it as simply and compactly as gasoline or LNG fuel. The options are to store it at very low temperature (cryogenically), at high pressure, or chemically as hydrides. The last is seen to have considerable potential, though refuelling a vehicle is less straightforward. Pressurised storage is the main technology available now and this means that at 345 times atmospheric pressure (34.5 MPa, 5000 psi), ten times the volume is required than for an equivalent amount of petrol/gasoline. By 2010 however 680 atmospheres (70 MPa) was practical, and the weight penalty of a steel tank was reduced by use of carbon fibre. Earlier, the tank had been about 50 times heavier than the hydrogen it stored, now it is about 20 times as heavy, and the new target is ten times as heavy. Storage for buses can be at 35 MPa, but for cars it needs to be twice that.

One promising hydride storage system utilises sodium borohydride as the energy carrier, with high energy density. The NaBH4 is catalysed to yield its hydrogen, leaving a borate (NaBO2) to be reprocessed.

Fuel cells are currently being used in electric forklift trucks and this use is expected to increase steadily. They apparently cost about three times as much as batteries but last twice as long (10,000 hours) and have less downtime. The first fuel cell electric cars running on hydrogen were expected to be on the fleet market from 2015. By the end of 2016 there were more than 1000 fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) on the road in the USA and Japan, plus a few hundred in Europe. Fuel cell buses have clocked up over 2 million kilometres and a fleet of 20 has been used in Vancouver. Another project has three Mercedes Citaro buses in each of 11 cities. Japan had a goal of 5 million fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2020.

The Hydrogen Mobility Europe (H2ME) project announced in 2015 will extend over six years supported by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) with funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program. The initiative is aimed to significantly expand the European hydrogen vehicles fleet and in so doing, to confirm the technical and commercial readiness of vehicles, fuelling stations and hydrogen production techniques.

The €68 million first phase of H2ME involves plans for 300 fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) and 29 hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS), mostly in Germany. The €100 million second phase, announced in June 2016, includes the deployment and operation of 1,230 FCEVs and the addition of 20 extra HRSs, as well as testing the ability of electrolyser-hydrogen refuelling stations to help balance the electrical grid.

Two types of fuel cell electric vehicle will be deployed under H2ME: fuel cell electric cars from Daimler and Hyundai, and fuel cell range-extended vans from Symbio FCell in collaboration with Renault. The fuel cell powertrain is a modular assembly. It is comprised of fuel cell stack, system module, hydrogen tanks, battery and electric motor.

Daimler’s B-Class F-Cell vehicles are fitted with a 700 bar hydrogen tank in the sandwich floor unit. Its electric motor develops an output of 100kW, with a torque of 290Nm, and thus has the power rating of a two-litre gasoline engine. The zero-emission drive system consumes the equivalent of 3.3 L/100km of diesel. Hyundai’s Tucson ix35 Fuel Cell is the first mass production model of the company’s FCEV. The fuel cell system of the ix35 is integrated for high performance and efficiency, and two 700 bar hydrogen tanks provide long distance driving range. Symbio FCell’s range-extended fuel cell vehicles are powered by a compact 5kW fuel cell module, coupled with a light 350 bar hydrogen storage unit, a medium-size automotive battery pack and integrated onto the Renault Kangoo ZE platform. The Symbio FCell stack doubles the range of the electric-only Kangoo ZE base vehicle.

The hydrogen refuelling stations are designed so that vehicles can be refuelled in under five minutes, i.e. a similar time to refuelling of conventional petrol or diesel car. In 2015:

  • France had 8 HRS operational, plans for 20 more by 2020.
  • Germany had 18 HRS operational, plans for 100 more by 2018 and 400 by 2023.
  • Scandinavia has 12 HRS operational, plans for 150 more by 2020.
  • The UK had 6 HRS operational, plans for 65 by 2020 and 1150 by 2030.

Under H2ME both on-site and off-site hydrogen production at the refuelling stations will be investigated.

Current fuel cell design consists of bipolar electrode plates in a frame with electrolyte between, and developer of the most common proton exchange membrane type, Dr Ballard, suggests that a new geometry is required to bring the cost down and make the technology more widely available to a mass market. The normal PEM type operates at about 80°C, using a catalyst which requires a pure hydrogen stream as fuel. The automotive division of Ballard was sold to a Daimler-Ford joint venture (50.1% Daimler, 30% Ford, 19.9% Ballard), allowing Ballard to concentrate on stationary applications. (Re fuel cells: see Ballard website.) Many reviews point out that fuel cells are intrinsically not simple and there are no obvious reasons to expect them to become cheap.

Fuel cells using hydrogen can also be used for stand-alone small-scale stationary generating plants – where higher temperature operation (e.g. of solid oxide fuel cells) and hydrogen storage may be less of a problem or where it is reticulated like natural gas. Cogeneration fuel cell units for domestic power and heat are being deployed in Japan under a subsidy scheme which terminates in 2012, by which time unit costs were expected to drop from US$ 50,000 to $6000 and also they will need to last for a decade.

But at present fuel cells are much more expensive to make than internal combustion engines (burning petrol/gasoline or natural gas). In the early 2000s, PEM units cost over $1000 per kilowatt, compared with $100/kW for conventional internal combustion engine. The target cost for a PEM fuel cell stack is below €100/kW, which will require reducing the amount of palladium catalyst. In mid-2016 hydrogen was being supplied in the UK at GBP 10/kg (€12/kg) which works out at 25p/kWh (€0.30/kWh).

The direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology is practical for portable electronic uses but not favoured for automotive use at present. Other fuel cell technologies include the high-temperature PEMFC operating up to 200°C which is less vulnerable to catalyst poisoning by CO, phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC) – well developed but high-temperature and used only for stationary power generation, the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) – operating over 800°C, hence mainly used for stationary power generation, and the molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC) – high-temperature (about 650°C) and accepting a variety of fuels, for stationary power generation.

TÜV SÜD's H2Mobility webpage provides information on some 400 current and past developed prototype cars, buses, trucks, bikes, ships and aircraft as well as specialty vehicles.

The initial use of hydrogen for transport is likely to be municipal bus and truck fleets, and these are already on the road in many parts of the world. These are centrally-fuelled, so avoid the need for a retail network, and onboard storage of hydrogen is less of a problem than in cars.

For information on fuel cells in particular motor vehicles see companion paper Electricity and Cars.

Use of hydrogen to produce methanol and DME fuels

Following on from thermochemical hydrogen production, and considering the storage and portability challenges of hydrogen itself, as well as the radical change to fuel cell cars, attention has turned to methanol. As noted above: portable hydrogen storage is difficult, especially for automotive use. Any future fuel for cars needs to compete with petrol at 32 MJ/L or diesel fuel at 39 MJ/L and be no more difficult to store and refuel than LPG.

LNG has a similar storage problem to hydrogen, ethanol comes from biomass, which raises a host of land use issues, but methanol can be made from CO2 and hydrogen. If the hydrogen is nuclear-produced, and CO2 is a problem due to its abundance, automotive fuel can be provided forever, using present engine technology. For diesel engines, dimethyl ether (CH3-O-CH3) is better than methanol, and this is made by dehydrating methanol. DME is a gas but can be stored under low pressure as a liquid, like LPG. Methanol and DME have energy density of 18-19 MJ/L, so less than oil-based fuels, but still usable and easily stored. Also, methanol can be used in fuel cells, if these are preferred over internal combustion engines – see mention above. The post-oil future may be methanol-based.

Methanol, and dimethyl ether (DME) derived from it, are good energy carriers, and DME in particular can substitute for diesel fuel. Methanol today is produced in a variety of ways, but ideally it will be produced from atmospheric CO2 regenerated with hydrogen produced by nuclear energy, using more nuclear energy in the conversion process.

CO2 + 3H2 ⇒ CH3OH + H2O     ∆H = -49.5 kJ/mol at 25°C, -58 kJ/mol at 225°C  – exothermic

(the endothermic reverse water shift reaction CO2 + H2 ⇒ CO + H2O will occur at same time, along with:
CO + 2H2 ⇒ CH3OH     ∆H = -91 to -98 kJ/mol – exothermic)

Dimethyl ether is then made in a dehydration reaction:

2CH3OH ⇒ CH3OCH3 + H2O     ∆H = -23 kJ/mol

In Iceland, methanol production is already occurring using CO2 captured from flue gas and hydrogen from electrolysis using renewable energy. The company Carbon Recycling International was set up in 2006 to produce renewable methanol for automotive use and also biodiesel.

Dimethyl ether (DME) is already used as propane replacement, and world production capacity is over 10 million tonnes per year. China alone is aiming for 20 million tonnes per year DME capacity by 2020. Sweden is producing BioDME from black liquor.

So methanol, together with derived DME, can be used:

  1. As a convenient energy storage medium.
  2. As a readily transportable and dispensable fuel for internal combustion engines and compression ignition (diesel) engines, with little engineering change.
  3. For fuel cells.
  4. As a feedstock for synthetic hydrocarbons and their products, including fuels, polymers and even single-cell proteins (for animal feed and/or human consumption).

Methanol and DME production is at relatively low temperature (compared with thermochemical hydrogen production) – 230-350°C instead of 900°C or more.

Coal to liquid hydrocarbon fuels

Coal can be a basis for liquid hydrocarbon fuels, and has been so for nearly a century. Nuclear power can be brought to bear on this in two ways.

The Fischer-Tropsch process was originally developed in Germany in the 1920s, and provided much of the fuel for Germany during the Second World War. It then became the basis for much oil production in South Africa by Sasol, which now supplies about 30% of that country's gasoline and diesel fuel. However, it is a significant user of hydrogen, catalyzing a reaction with carbon monoxide. The hydrogen is now produced with the CO by coal gasification, part of the gas stream undergoing the water-gas shift reaction. Using simply black coal, 14,600 tonnes of coal produces 25,000 barrels of synfuel 'oil' (along with 25,000 tonnes of CO2).

A nuclear source of hydrogen coupled with nuclear process heat would more than double the amount of liquid hydrocarbons from the coal and eliminate most CO2 emissions from the process.

Alternatively, a hybrid system uses nuclear electricity to electrolyse water for hydrogen and oxygen. In this case, some 4400 tonnes of coal is gasified using oxygen from the electrolysis to produce carbon monoxide which is fed to the Fischer-Tropsch plant with the hydrogen to produce 25,000 barrels of synfuel 'oil'. Very little CO2 results, and this is recycled to the gasifier.

Notes & references


1. International Energy Agency, The Future of Hydrogen – Seizing today’s opportunities, Report prepared by the IEA for the G20, Japan (June 2019) [Back]

General sources

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells
Tom Koppel & Jay Reynolds, A Fuel Cell Primer: The Promise and the Pitfalls (2000)
ACI Technologies, Fuel Cell Primer (2011)
Forsberg, C. 2005, What is the initial market for hydrogen from nuclear energy?, Nuclear News (January 2005)
Bertel, E. et al 2004, Nuclear energy - the hydrogen economy, NEA News 22.2
Schultz K.R. 2004, Use of the modular helium reactor for hydrogen production, Nuclear Engineer 45,2
Forsberg, C. 2002, The advanced high-temperature reactor for hydrogen production, 15/5/02 GA Workshop
Walters, Leon et al 2002, Transition to a nuclear/hydrogen energy system, The Nuclear Engineer 43,6
Shiozawa, S. et al 2003, Status of the Japanese development study of hydrogen production system using HTGR, KAIF/KNS conference
Schultz, K. et al, 2005, The Hydrogen reaction, Nuclear Engineering International, July 2005
Sakaba, N. et al, 2005, JAERI's Hot Stuff, Nuclear Engineering International, July 2005
Romm J.J. & Frank A.F. 2006, Hybrid Vehicles Gain Traction, Scientific American April 2006
Economist Technology Quarterly, 10/6/06
Brown, Russell 2006, Critical Paths to a Post-Petroleum Age (ANL paper)
Satyapal S. et al, 2007, Gassing up with Hydrogen, Scientific American, April 2007
Hydrogen mobility gets a boost in Europe, Engerati, 20 July 2016


You may also be interested in