Hydrogen set to do the heavy lifting

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Hydrogen fuel cell technology is an effective alternative to diesel engines. Potentially entirely carbon neutral in operation

Since the mid-1990s, the most significant growth in types of heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, has been in articulated HGVs over 41 tonnes gross vehicle weight, which were initially allowed on British roads in the early 1990s but only when moving containers to/from rail terminals but were then permitted for all freight traffic from the early 2000s. By 2018 around 115,000 HGVs over 41 tonnes were registered in Great Britain.

The Midlands has 30% of the lorry freight in the UK.  HGV emissions make up 21% of road-based transport emissions in the Midlands compared with the national average of 17%. In the East of the Midlands is the biggest port on the Humber with access to deep water channels permitting servicing of larger ships. In the middle is the East Midlands Airport which is the UK's busiest pure cargo airport and second only to Heathrow, handling over 320,000 tonnes of flown cargo every year. In the West Midlands is the automotive sector with substantive supply chains with complex logistics. There are also two successful applications for Freeports linked to the East Midlands Airport and the Humber. 

These HGVs have been the supply chain backbone, supporting just about every element of how we live our lives. They transport goods across and into the country, from food to construction materials. It is hard to appreciate the scale of the haulage sector until moments when it grinds to a halt and supplies run scare and trucks back up at ports for tens of kilometres. They are the lifeline for the UK’s economy. Yet on the other hand they are heavy, diesel consuming, transport whose impact on CO2 emissions is significant and to achieve net zero need to be transformed.

There is a clear need to decarbonise this extreme end of the HGV spectrum. Here fuel cell and hydrogen (FCH) technology is a very promising zero-emission powertrain solution for the heavy-duty trucking industry. It is widely accepted that electric vehicle solutions cannot work at this end of the spectrum as the weight of the battery packs required to power the vehicles electric engine become so heavy that the economics cease to stack up. Although there are no 41 tonne hydrogen trucks presently on the UK roads, we are on the verge of seeing this happen. There are a number of international truck manufacturers who have prototype vehicles and there are companies such as Hyundai who have established a small scale trial of hydrogen powered trucks in Switzerland. There is a need for the UK to get on-board.

If there is a move to hydrogen HGVs, the Midlands is the prime location for national distribution centres and as it forms the core of the logistics Golden Triangle;  the East Midlands has the largest concentration of large-scale warehousing (10.3 million sqm and 452 properties) and the West Midlands has the third largest concentration with 8.0 million sqm and 445 properties.

The UK government have recently run a competition for catalysing regional development of schemes to transition the HGV from diesel. The Midlands has an ambition to establish a hydrogen freight and logistics route which extends from the West Midlands past the East Midlands Airport and through to the South Humber. In the first instance this could see hundreds of hydrogen trucks on the roads and a national demonstrator. The aim is also to create the right economic environment for hydrogen truck manufacturers to locate to the region.

The western anchor for this route would be Tyseley Energy Park, TEP, in Birmingham. TEP already has the largest public hydrogen refuelling station in the UK, which was developed to serve the fleet of hydrogen buses procured by the Birmingham City Council. These initial 20 hydrogen buses will form part of the councils plans for decarbonisation of the city’s transport system. There are bigger opportunities involving hydrogen refuse collection vehicles, RCVs, through to hydrogen powered trains.

The University of Birmingham are supporting all of this innovation and has just opened the Birmingham Energy Innovation Centre at Tyseley Energy Park, with the work of the university’s hydrogen and fuel cell research group a core element of the research programme. The timing is perfect as we are set to see the most major transition in heavy transport for over 30 years.

Professor Martin Freer - Director of the  Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI).