With the Shell Eco-marathon pioneering new ways for hydrogen to power vehicles, we look ahead to the immediate and long-term future of the versatile fuel.

Train trials: ‘Quiet and zero emission trains’

Alstom is working on the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled passenger train. The train recently underwent successful testing and could make its way into the public realm within the next four years.

Hydrogen fuel cell trains would strip out the large infrastructure costs and disruption connected with the electrification of train lines, as well as reducing the power drain. And it would achieve the same end result – a very quiet train with zero emissions.

In Germany, they’re using such projects to showcase the technology. And here in the UK a variety of partners including the government will need to work together to make this a reality.

The other option is urban trams. The infrastructure for Hydrogen trams could cost a lot less than that required for electric trams and could result in far less disruption during the installation phase.   This is because with Hydrogen only a refuelling station is required avoiding the often complex provision of electric power systems in urban areas and would showcase the technology.

Hydrogen power cities: ‘It can and has been done before’

People interested in using more hydrogen have realised you can’t just keep talking about using it for transport – you need to broaden the discussion.

This is what the Hydrogen H21 Leeds City Gate project wants to do by replacing natural gas with hydrogen in the gas network. Such a system could be used for heating and domestic cooking, as well as supplying hydrogen fuel stations.

With people thinking more about energy security, another product being introduced into the mix makes sense. What a lot of people don’t realise is that before North Sea oil and gas was discovered in the 1960s, there was a lot more hydrogen in the grid. The message is that it can be done and has, in fact, been done before.

Ships: ‘No technological barriers’

There’s no technological reason hydrogen can’t be used for ships. You’re just using it to create electricity to power a drive or engine. There might be challenges over how much hydrogen you can store on a boat. But from an engineering point of view, there’s no reason it can’t be done.

This is what the likes of Royal Caribbean have been doing with cruise ships – using hydrogen fuel cell technology as a means of additional power. These are expected to hit the waves by 2024.

Another driver of hydrogen fuel on ships is Race for Water. As part of this, Swiss Hydrogen has built a solar-powered ship that can switch to hydrogen when away from the sun.

More buses: ‘Improving air quality faster than cars’

One of the high-profile successes of hydrogen fuel cell technology is the Aberdeen bus project which BOC owns and operates on behalf of Aberdeen City Council.

The EU has been focussing on buses with demonstration projects and is now trying to make more money available for those who have already trialled hydrogen buses. London and Aberdeen are looking to expand their offering, while other large cities in both England and Scotland are developing their own hydrogen bus projects.

These buses are the first step for these local authorities to improve air quality. As a result of such projects, the cost of hydrogen buses will come down, encouraging more to get involved.

Clean energy storage: ‘The only viable alternative in sight’

Hydrogen’s not just about power but also about storage. It can be used as an ‘energy vector’ – a storage and conversion solution between two different types of energy.

So you can convert something like wind energy into hydrogen and store it; then later transform it into another type of energy like electricity.

If you have a wind turbine fuel station, you can’t always inject all the electricity created directly into the grid. In these situations, it could be stored in the form of hydrogen. If the grid then needs more electricity, you can use hydrogen to create it for the grid. Hydrogen gives you the versatility.

And it can be stored in many different ways, from a few grams in hand-held cartridges to thousands of tonnes in an underground cavern. Especially for longer term storage of weeks to months, hydrogen is today the only viable alternative in sight.

These are 4 exciting uses for hydrogen are not just future thinking – they will become reality. Tell us what you think in the comments below and what other ideas you might have for how hydrogen can play a part in improving our everyday lives.

Learn more about the technologies used at Shell Eco Marathon and our role in the event.

Nick Power

Market Development Manager – Clean Fuels