Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, present in vast quantities in lakes, oceans and the atmosphere. It's also one of our cleanest fuels, producing only water when burnt in fuel cells.
No wonder there's great interest and investment in the hydrogen-powered future, most notably in long-haul transportation.
Trucking, shipping and aviation are often referred to as 'hard-to-abate' sectors because it is particularly challenging for them to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, they face significant pressure to reduce their carbon footprint. Consortiums and companies across these sectors have broken ground in the transition to cleaner energy.
Global sales of electric vehicles rose 65 percent in 2017-2018, with similar growth in 2019 until the pandemic hit. But while the technology is popular with car buyers, it simply doesn't scale up to long-haul trucks. Here, hydrogen-powered fuel cells are better suited to vehicle weight restrictions and give greater mileage. Most compellingly, there are zero tailpipe emissions.
This is important given the sector's disproportionate carbon footprint. In the US, heavy-duty vehicles account for just 10 percent of total vehicle miles driven, but represent 23 percent of greenhouse gases from transportation emissions.
Daimler, the world's largest heavy truck maker, is betting on fuel cell technology for its zero carbon ambitions. Its GenH2 hydrogen-powered heavy truck prototype is capable of going 600 miles between refueling. In turn, this addresses the biggest challenge facing hydrogen-fueled trucks: the lack of refueling infrastructure.
Plugging this gap can't fall to individual companies working alone, however - something Daimler is keenly aware of. Their partnership with Shell offers a breakthrough in the creation of a hydrogen corridor – a chain of hydrogen refueling stations – in northern Europe. Meanwhile, a partnership with competitor Volvo Truck is helping to develop fuel cell technology faster.
Many in long-haul trucking see hydrogen as the path to a clean energy transition, but underpinning this are unprecedented models of cross-industry partnership and collaboration.
The Hydroville, a 16-passenger catamaran, shuffles commuters and corporate guests between Kruibeke, Belgium and the nearby city of Antwerp. The CMB-owned ferry is the world's first hydrogen-powered passenger vessel, and a landmark step in transforming the shipping industry.
That transformation is happening in tandem with Japan's Tsuneishi shipbuilding company. Together, they're building an 80-passenger successor to the Hydroville, as well as Asia's first hydrogen-powered tugboat. Such partnerships share risk and costs, and allow for greater innovation.
They can also further boost the development and deployment of technology. For instance, further collaboration within Japan between Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Yanmar Power Technology and Japan Engine will develop hydrogen-fueled engines for large commercial vessels.
Using hydrogen in shipping is not without its challenges, however. Storing liquid hydrogen at -235C takes a lot of space, which is at a premium on cargo ships. CMB's solution is in shoreside infrastructure. Their maritime refueling station in Antwerp will produce green hydrogen using an electrolyzer. The facility will even be publicly accessible to electric and hydrogen-fuelled cars and buses, as well as ships.
The world wants to fly, but it comes at a cost. According to the UN's civil aviation body, ICAO, an economy return flight London to New York emits 0.67 metric tons of CO2 per passenger. That's equivalent to the carbon emissions of a person living in Ghana for a whole year. Global aviation, which includes passenger and freight transport, is responsible for almost 2 percent of greenhouse emissions worldwide.
In April 2021, multinationals including Netflix, Microsoft and Boeing formed the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) – such is the interest in investing in and accelerating the fuel transition. With battery powered electric flights limited to short distances of up to 150 miles, hydrogen propulsion has come to dominate the conversation.
The ZEROe program from Airbus, which aims to develop the world's first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035, relies on hydrogen technologies. Its blended-Wing Body concept even reimagines traditional aircraft design with an ultra-wide, stingray-shaped fuselage to allow for the storage of liquid hydrogen.
US-based start-up ZeroAvia achieved the world's first hydrogen-powered flight in 2020 with its HyFlyer I project. Progress from here will use a by-now familiar stepped model, expanding next to a 19-seater craft capable of flying for 500 miles before refueling. The company aims to have 100-seater craft flying for more than 1,000 miles by 2030.
The need for ground infrastructure to keep pace isn't lost on key players, either. Airbus is collaborating with airlines and airports to research how associated ground vehicles, including passenger buses and tugs, can be decarbonized to further reduce emissions from transportation.
Whether hydrogen is the final destination for long-haul transportation remains to be seen. With the majority of hydrogen currently produced using fossil fuels, the availability of green hydrogen is likely to be a key factor in decarbonizing the giants that keep global trade turning.