A solar-powered hydrogen production and filling station facility capable of producing 20 tonnes of hydrogen a year has been opened at Honda’s Swindon factory.
The hydrogen it produces can be dispensed directly into fuel cell vehicles such as Honda’s own FCX Clarity.
Fuel cell cars are still under development and so far have only been manufactured in small volumes, but Honda fuel cell expert Thomas Brachman says that if made in numbers of 100,000 a year or more, the cost of a Honda hydrogen fuel cell car could already compete on price with a conventional combustion engine-powered car of today.
The hydrogen station is the first to produce commercial quantities of renewable hydrogen at the point of use. It has been developed by a consortium of companies including the British Oxygen Corporation, with funding from the government’s Innovate UK.
The plant will also supply a small fleet of bi-fuel Ford Transit vans belonging to Swindon Borough Council and two fuel cell-powered fork lift trucks working in the production facility.
Hydrogen is produced at the new plant in a sustainable way though pressurised alkaline electrolysis of water using electricity produced by a solar farm nearby.
Electrolysis is a process which breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen with no carbon emissions, as long as the electricity used is from renewable sources. A fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into ‘clean’ electricity with only water and heat as by-products.
Hydrogen is produced by the Honda production plant at 900bar and can be supplied to vehicles with either 350bar or 750bar storage tanks. The firm first established a hydrogen filling facility at Swindon in 2011.
Until now, the hydrogen it dispensed was shipped to the site, but the addition of the sustainable production facility has significant implications for the potential of hydrogen as a transport fuel.
One of the challenges manufacturers face in making fuel cell cars a production reality is the distribution of hydrogen to the point of sale. There are arguments in favour of centralised hydrogen production on the grounds of cost, but stand-alone systems don’t rely on a complex hydrogen delivery network and the associated carbon footprint that goes with it.
According to the UK Petroleum Industry Association, the cost of building a conventional high volume filling station capable of dispensing five million litres per year is in the region of £2 million - compared to the cost of the Honda filling station and production plant of just over £1 million.
Passenger cars make up around 60 per cent of the fuel used in road transport, accounting for around three million litres of the conventional filling station’s capacity. Assuming an average car can achieve 35mpg, that’s enough fuel for around 23.1 million miles of motoring.
The Honda FCX Clarity has a range of 285 miles on 3.9kg of hydrogen, the useable amount in a tank holding 4.2kg. On that basis, the Honda station could provide enough fuel per year to support over 1.4 million miles of fuel cell-powered motoring at an estimated pump price for hydrogen of between £5 and £6 per kilogram.
On-going running costs would be much lower than a conventional forecourt, with no fuel to buy and no delivery costs. The question of energy security is also removed from the equation altogether.
The UK government is backing hydrogen as part of a portfolio of low-emission technologies, says Kate Warren from the government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles: “Road transport will need to de-carbonise by some 80 per cent by 2050, so we need to understand what the options are.”