Hydrogen: Fuel of the future?

Using hydrogen as fuel could, in theory, shrink transport emissions to nearly zero. It might sound too good to be true, but strides are already being made to bring it to the world of waste and recycling. Hannah Boxall reports.

Everyone knows that recycling has many positive impacts on the environment, not least the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions it brings. There’s no denying, though, that large refuse-collection vehicles (RCVs) carrying heavy (though beneficial!) loads don’t tend to be the most fuel-efficient.

Indeed, a WRAP report in 2009 found that some RCVs achieved fuel efficiencies as low as 3.5 miles per gallon (mpg) and as high at 10.5mpg, resulting in CO2 emissions per tonne of waste collected between 8.58 and 22.17 kilogrammes (kg). While strides have been made in creating more fuel-efficient resource recovery vehicles in recent years, some argue that going down the route of hydrogen fuel cells could all but eliminate such vehicles’ carbon footprints.

Part of the reason hydrogen is so attractive as a fuel is that, when it burns, the only byproduct is water. (Hydrogen gas, however, has to be produced, so it can only be considered zero-carbon if it is produced using renewable energy. At the moment, most hydrogen is manufactured by reacting steam with non-renewable coal or natural gas, which has carbon implications. It can, however, also be manufactured through electrolysis, whereby electricity – which could come from renewable sources – is passed through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms.) Hydrogen, which can be used either in a fuel cell or a more traditional combustion engine, also has clear (potential) advantages over electricity in powering vehicles in that it allows greater range (500 kilometres (km) for a hydrogen-powered car compared to less than 200km for an electric) and refuelling times, which are comparable to filling a petrol tank.

But before a hydrogen fuel revolution can occur, the industry must overcome some significant hurdles, including the high cost of manufacturing both vehicles and fuel, and the slow (and, again, expensive) development of refuelling infrastructure, which is complicated by the fact that hydrogen isn’t as convenient to handle as petrol and diesel, given its high flammability and tendency to explode. According to Forbes’s latest estimations, one kg of hydrogen costs £10 and will power a car for 97-100km – the same distance would cost a petrol car around £5.30 (for four kg of petrol). And while cost estimates for installing the necessary infrastructure vary greatly, it’s sure to be expensive: estimates for distributing hydrogen stations throughout the US vary from US$20 billion to US$500 billion, while the cost estimations for bringing a comprehensive network of hydrogen stations to Europe range from US$4.6 billion to US$20 billion.

Nonetheless, there is great interest and some financial backing for hydrogen’s development – including here in the UK. In 2014, the government committed £5 million through the Hydrogen for Transport Advancement Programme for 12 hydrogen refuelling stations, and just this May launched the £2-million Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) Fleet Support Scheme to ‘allow local authorities, health trusts, police forces, fire brigades and private companies to bid for funding to add hydrogen-powered vehicles to their fleets’. While the focus at the moment seems to be on cars and vans, there are companies out there that are already proving hydrogen fuel could one day power waste vehicles, as well. 

Converting vehicles for use in Fife

ULEMCo hydrogen dual-fuel refuse trucks

In the UK, the first council to attempt a hydrogen-powered waste vehicle is Fife in Scotland – a ‘world first’ diesel- hydrogen fleet is planned, according to Amanda Lyne, the managing director
of ULEMCo. The company, which has already converted two waste vehicles for Fife, offers engineering services for the conversion of engines to run on hydrogen.

Fife Council was already investing in hydrogen as part of the Levenmouth Community Energy Project (LCEP), which aims to develop the world’s ‘foremost demonstrator of innovative applications of hydrogen derived from renewable sources’. It also already had plans to replace waste vehicles, which made the development of hydrogen-diesel dual- fuel refuse trucks possible and, indeed, attractive. Lyne explains that the council had purchased two vehicles ‘left-side clear’, meaning “there was room for 5 or 10kg hydrogen to be fitted on board”, which was then connected to the engine through the necessary pipework, and complemented with the right software.

“The vehicles have been delivered before the refuelling [infrastructure] has been completed,” Lynne explains, adding that they will run on diesel at first. Once the infrastructure is in place, she says, “we intend to go up and naturally calibrate and optimise the hydrogen bit with the actual refuse truck round that they’re doing, so we can fine tune for a bit how much [fuel] gets displaced”. Ultimately, ULEMCo hopes “to displace between 25-40 per cent of the diesel” that the vehicles require, and Lyne adds that servicing costs will be reduced because fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have fewer moving parts than a combustion vehicle.

As expected, though, the principal current drawback is cost: “This is the first time we’ve ever done it, so the cost is the main issue – because we’re hand-making them, and it’s a one off”, Lyne concludes.

WaterstofNet waste collection FCEV

While we wait for the outcome of the UK’s first hydrogen-powered waste vehicles, across the sea in the Netherlands, a prototype FCEV has shown promising results. For the past year and a half, a prototype hybrid waste collection vehicle carrying a hydrogen range extender (which increases the vehicle’s range to 360km) has been used by Cure Waste Management for paper collection in the centre of Eindhoven and neighbouring communities.

By using hydrogen fuel, the company estimates it generates 109kg fewer CO2 emissions each operational day, creating savings of 4.8 tonnes per year by using the waste collection trucks just one day a week.

Stefan Neis, Project Manager at WaterstofNet, explains the history behind the vehicle: “There was a regional project [in Flanders and southern Netherlands] and one of the aims was to develop and test a refuse collection vehicle. There was a lot of interest in hydrogen in the region... also a demand for clean fuel in the cities – as we’ve got regulations for pollution and sound.” By moving to quieter electric- hydrogen vehicles, the company was allowed to drive for twice as long in the city centre, meaning only one vehicle was needed instead of the usual two.

This article was taken from Issue 85

The company built its own hydrogen refuelling station in Helmond, on the outskirts of Eindhoven, and produces hydrogen by “electrolysis with green energy” – namely solar and wind. Moreover, Neis stresses that whereas the previously- used refuse collection vehicles had “a lot of negative effects – particulates, emissions, CO2, et cetera”, the hydrogen vehicle produces only water, “no pollution”.

He also adds: “Truck drivers really love driving it because it [is] silent. Even people in the city didn’t notice the truck driving by!”

Capitalising on the positive feedback, WatersofNet is working on a new project (with the bewildering title of ‘Life ’N Grab Hy!’), which will see the development of two new hydrogen waste collection vehicles: another paper collection truck and a more traditional ‘side-loader’, which will be able to collect waste from any type of bin used in the Netherlands. “The developers learned a lot through the development of the system, and the new line is now different from the prototype. There are lots of improvements in the technology after two years”, Neis says.

As with ULEMCo, WaterstofNet says that the main problems at the moment are cost and lack of infrastructure: “Because it’s a prototype, the developments will cost approximately two to three times the normal one”, says Neis. He adds: “In the Netherlands, there are only two refuelling stations, so if you’re located somewhere in the middle of the country you’d have to drive 100 kilometres to refuel.” Let’s hope these are only short-term problems...