Part 1 – Technology and Environmental Impact

Transport is changing.

As the world looks for green, sustainable long term alternatives to fossil fuels, we’re seeing electric vehicle technology becoming more prevalent in road, rail, sea and air applications. Two technologies are driving much of this transformation: lithium ion batteries, and hydrogen fuel cells.

At AMS Composite Cylinders, we’ve been at the forefront of hydrogen fuel cell technology for several years – providing ultra-lightweight carbon composite cylinders for several projects, including the World’s first hydrogen bike and Europe’s first hydrogen drone.

In this first in a two-part series of posts, we explore some of the big issues surrounding the technologies and environmental impact when it comes to sustainable transport applications.

Environmental Impact – The Bigger Picture

The transport sector accounts for about 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions – and both lithium ion battery technology and hydrogen fuel cell systems are an integral part of the solution in reducing these.

However, CO2 is just one part of the picture. Some of the biggest environmental concerns surround the production of the batteries and fuel cells themselves.

Batteries – Lithium

The growth in lithium mining for batteries is already having a significant environmental impact – one which is only likely to get worse as the sector develops. As with all mining, lithium extraction has the potential to harm soil, damage ecosystems and cause air and water contamination.

It takes approximately 500,000 gallons of water to mine every tonne of lithium – a huge amount for countries where water is already scarce.

Batteries – Cobalt

Mining cobalt for battery systems also has its own environmental and ethical impact. The mineral is almost exclusively located in central Africa – and it’s fairly easy to mine. Unfortunately, it is also toxic when pulled from the ground.

Rising prices and ease of mining encourage poor mining practices. Unsanctioned, ‘artisanal’ mining is rife – often using child/forced labour, by hand, without protective equipment – causing the destruction of fragile ecosystems in the process.

Fuel cells – Platinum and Iridium

Hydrogen fuel cells utilise both aluminium and platinum – which carry the same risk of environmentally destructive mining practices as other metals. In addition, the current electrolysis process used to create hydrogen utilises iridium – which is one of the rarest elements on Earth. Iridium is corroded during this process, making it a costly and resource-intensive process.

Energy, Sustainability and Lifespan

Hydrogen fuel cells have an energy to weight ratio ten times greater than lithium-ion batteries. This means that hydrogen powered vehicles have the potential to offer much greater range, while being lighter.

In addition, whereas lithium batteries have a limited lifespan and need to be replaced, fuel cells do not degrade in the same way. They continue to produce energy as long as the fuel source is present, which can significant environmental benefits over a normal working lifespan.

Sustainable Production and Efficiency

Just as with the energy used in batteries, Hydrogen is only as ‘green’ as the method of production. Until recently, the processes of creating hydrogen fuel have been expensive and energy consuming.

Today, the vast majority of hydrogen (circa 95%) is produced from fossil fuels via steam reformation. This has a real environmental impact, and puts its green credentials in doubt.

The alternative is to create hydrogen from water, via electrolysis. However, if the electricity used to fuel this process is generated from fossil fuel power plants, this can have an even larger impact!

This is now changing – with hydrogen production moving ever closer to its zero-emissions potential.

Growth in renewable energy

We are seeing a step change in renewable growth, with renewables set to provide around 30% of global power demand by 2023.

Utilising green energy improves the environmental credentials of both lithium ion and hydrogen fuel cell systems.

Advances in electrolysis

We are also seeing some big changes in the electrolysis process that will bring down both production costs and the environmental impact of hydrogen as a fuel.

New systems using abundant elements will eliminate the need for platinum or iridium in the process, whilst the energy efficiency of the process is rising. In the coming years, creating hydrogen fuel via water electrolysis has the potential to become significantly cheaper than making it from natural gas.

Surplus storage potential

The world’s energy requirements are not constant – with national grids constantly looking to balance energy generation with required output. During times of surplus energy, the grid switches off generation to match the load, or tries to export this surplus to other regions.

Both lithium ion battery systems and hydrogen offer an opportunity for the bulk storage of this surplus energy in a more effective and efficient manner.

Part 2 – Real World Applications

In part 2 of this post, we explore some of the real world applications that are already disrupting the future of global transport across road, rail, sea and flight.

From road transport and infrastructure networks, to pioneering lithium ion and hydrogen planes, we’ll compare the two technologies in terms of current and future potential.

Lightweight Carbon Composite Cylinders from AMS

AMS Composite Cylinders supplies a full range of advanced, lightweight gas cylinders to customers across the UK and Europe.

In addition to hydrogen fuel cells, our cylinders are used in a wide variety of applications, including healthcare, respiratory, SCBA, laboratory, industrial, emergency, aerospace, and environmental uses.

Carbon composite cylinders offer high pressure (300 Bar), low weight, and NLL (Non-Limited Life) performance, and are accredited for use worldwide, in line with ISO 11119-2, UN-TPED Pi, DOT (USA), TC (Canada).

Additional information about AMS Composite Cylinders Ltd can be found at www.ams-composites.com.

This post was written by Steve Langron PhD, Supply Chain Director of AMS Composite Cylinders Ltd