Norway is creating a network of hydrogen filling stations to power cars that run on fuel cells.
Diane Daniel | December 2008 issue
From Oslo, where most Norwegians live, the nearest hydrogen filling station is about two hours away, first along a freeway, then down a smaller, winding highway and finally through the small city of Porsgrunn to the research and development center of the energy company StatoilHydro. So the Porsgrunn hasn ‘t done much to promote the use of hydrogen vehicles among the masses.
That ‘s due to change by May of 2009, when the first hydrogen fuel station in Oslo is scheduled to open, along with one in Drammen, 40 minutes south. Around the same time, a second station will be added in Stavanger, on the west coast, an eight-hour drive from Oslo.
By the end of next year, Norway ‘s hydrogen highway will link at least five stations to form a 360-mile (580-kilometer) corridor along which motorists can drive what many see as the cars of the future: vehicles powered by hydrogen.
The initiative may seem surprising coming from the world ‘s third-largest oil exporter. But hydrogen-powered vehicles produce no emissions other than harmless water vapor, and Norwegians are determined to demonstrate that these kinds of vehicles are not only possible but essential. We want to show that zero-emissions cars are already here, so we need to show them in use to develop the technology further and get the costs down,” says Goril Andreassen of the non-profit group Zero, part of the HyNor national partnership pushing for hydrogen transportation. To solve the climate change problem and reduce emissions, we have to change from fossil fuels to zero emissions. We want businesses and the government to spend more money and take more responsibility to make that happen.
The country is part of a growing number worldwide, especially the U.S., Canada and Japan, working to develop hydrogen technology and energy infrastructures. To date, only 20 hydrogen cars are on the road in Norway. The first batch was a fleet of 15 Toyota Priuses converted to hydrogen use; these demonstration cars are leased for five years to governments and businesses. By the end of this year, five hydrogen fuel cell Think City cars are expected from Norwegian electric carmaker Think. (A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity efficiently, silently, and without combustion by chemical reaction through a chemical reaction.) And in 2009, another 30 or so are due to be delivered as part of an agreement between HyNor and Japanese manufacturer Mazda. Two more sites are also planned for the highway: a third near Oslo and another, still under discussion, in Bergen to the north, which together would add 130 miles (210 kilometers) to the network.
That may not sound like a lot of hydrogen-powered rubber hitting the road, but only 300 to 500 hydrogen cars are in gear worldwide. More than 200 of those are in California, which has its own hydrogen highway program. “It’s important for hydrogen technologies to gain international improvement and acceptance, and for clusters of hydrogen technology to form around the world,” says Patrick Serfass, spokesperson for the National Hydrogen Association in Washington, D.C.
Hydrogen can be obtained from water or from hydrocarbon sources such as natural gas, methanol or petroleum products. It ‘s combined with oxygen to produce electrical energy. The by-product is water. In vehicles, instead of an internal combustion engine producing mechanical energy, a fuel cell creates electrical energy. The electricity from the fuel cell powers an electric motor and the entire drive train, while performing as well or better in terms of speed, acceleration and handling. A fuel cell vehicle is at least twice as efficient in using energy as a gas-powered vehicle.
Along with the zero emissions and high fuel economy, other benefits of using hydrogen and fuel cells are the potential for reducing carbon emissions by producing hydrogen using renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, and the availability of hydrogen from many sources. This lessens reliance on any one source, including fossil fuel. On the downside, fuel-cell systems cost several times more than combustion engines, the driving range is 200 miles or less and virtually all hydrogen vehicles on the road are demonstration cars.
The reliability and durability of fuel cells in real-world applications hasn ‘t yet been proven either. While most transport experts agree that hydrogen will be the fuel of the future, the widespread use of these vehicles still face many obstacles, including fueling infrastructure; vehicle availability and cost; and hydrogen supply. Norway ‘s hydrogen highway project is designed to show how these problems can be solved.
Because hydrogen is an energy carrier, like electricity, energy is needed to produce it. Norway already produces 99 percent of its energy from hydropower, and adapting these facilities to capture hydrogen is relatively straightforward. Hydrogen can be produced from water through electrolysis, a process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. This is more expensive than producing hydrogen from natural gas, but Norway already uses so much hydropower it gives the country a competitive advantage.
Although hydrogen can be produced from renewable sources, most is made using natural gas, leading critics to point out that more energy is potentially spent making hydrogen than the gas generates. But while hydrogen from renewable sources has less impact on the environment, hydrogen made from natural gas is still viable. According to the National Hydrogen Association ‘s Serfass, Even making it from natural gas still will reduce emissions from transportation by 50 percent compared to using gasoline. It ‘s also one of the cheapest ways to produce hydrogen now. In the end, one of the most important things to preserve is the diversity of resources.
The Norwegians aren’t relying solely on hydropowered electrolysis for their hydrogen, however. Stations along the hydrogen highway will derive their energy from different renewable sources. Oslo will use hydropower; Drammen, biomass waste; and a future station, in Romerike, just north of Oslo, solar power. At the StatoilHydro station in Porsgrunn, hydrogen is produced from chlorine manufactured in a petrochemical plant two and a half miles (four kilometers) away. “The by-product from chlorine production is hydrogen, so it ‘s industrially produced hydrogen, originally for another purpose,” explains StatoilHydro ‘s manager of hydrogen activities, Torgeir Nakken. The electrolysis process uses electricity to produce chlorine and hydrogen, but the electricity is based on hydropower, so it ‘s renewable. One of our goals with HyNor is to show the different renewable ways to produce hydrogen.
At the moment, two types of hydrogen cars are available those using hydrogen engines and those using hydrogen fuel cells. Engine vehicles (like the Prius and Mazda versions) burn hydrogen in a traditional internal combustion engine, while in fuel cell vehicles (such as Think’s) the cell replaces the engine, making it electric. Nakken favors the hydrogen-engine vehicles, at least for now. “They’re much less expensive and more robust,” he says. The fuel cell technology isn ‘t advanced enough, but I think the problems with it will be solved. The issue isn’t if, but when.
The hydrogen highway could help make Norway an early test track for hydrogen cars, accelerating the pace at which fuel cell technology advances. “Not only does the country have the great benefit of its hydroelectricity, which makes hydrogen really attractive there,” Serfass says, but There ‘s a combination of public and private resources working together to enable hydrogen. When you get that combination of resources, that ‘s when you can really make innovation happen.