Hydrogen in the UK

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Friends, on Monday I visited a Brunel University Hydrogen Event. This meant getting up(!) and travelling far beyond the borders of Teddington on TWO buses – so when I arrived in Uxbridge at  11:00 a.m. it had already been an exciting day for a retiree like me.

It was the kind of event I might have attended when I worked at NPL, but when I worked for NPL I would have gone along to promote something, or to give a talk. So it was liberating to be there with no agenda: I went with the simple goal of educating myself. And I did learn a thing or two. So I thought I would jot down a few of the things I learned.

Thing#1: Electrolysers

I learned that ITM Power is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electrolysers, with a capacity to manufacturer around 1 GW of electrolysers per year – in the UK! Remember that only hydrogen manufactured using electrolysis powered by renewable electricity has the capability to create green hydrogen with practically zero CO2 emissions.

Thing#2: Fuel Cell Vehicles

I learned that many people are still very keen on fuel-cell powered vehicles. Talking with a fellow delegate I pointed out the relative inefficiency of using fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) compared to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) – you can read my previous article on this here. However the delegate was dismissive of efficiency as a metric, whereas I consider it to be overwhelmingly important.

Remember that if we begin with 100 kWh of renewable electricity, after creating hydrogen we will have only 80% of the energy available, and only half of that makes it to the wheels of the vehicle – so only 40% of the initial energy is useful. However if we use that renewable electricity to charge a battery and discharge it, around 85% of the energy is useful.

What this means is that to run a fleet of vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells requires more than twice the renewable electricity resource. In the future we may have an excess of renewable electricity, but this will not be the case for many years.

The delegate explained that efficiency was only relevant if a BEVs had the capacity of a FCV, by which I think they were referring to power and range. So the delegate thought that fuel-cell drive trains would ‘win’ in this area. And it may be that for large vehicles or trains, there may be a niche for fuel cells, but I remain sceptical.

Things#3: Hydrogen Combustion Engines 

To my surprise some people are still pursuing hydrogen combustion for motive applications.

Some people are working on retrofit apparatus for existing diesel engines and some are working on radical new concepts which would operate at very high temperatures and have a thermodynamic efficiency approaching 70% compared with about 25% for a conventional  Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) car i.e. ICE cars throw away 75% of the energy of combustion as heat.

A 3-D printed model of a hydrogen internal combustion engine.

I would have dismissed this completely, but Japanese manufacturers are still clinging to the idea (News Story 18 May 2023) and one of the world’s leading manufacturer’s of construction equipment – JCB – is planning on using such engines in their vehicles.


Click on Image for a larger version. The discussion panel consisting of (from Left to Right): Ben Madden, Rita Wadey, Ben Todd and the keynote speaker, Graham Cooley.

The keynote presentation was given by Dr. Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM-Power, and I found it quite inspiring. I won’t try to précis the talk but instead just note one point.

He noted that technological cultures are built on both molecules and electrons. Historically we have started with hydrocarbon molecules (coal, oil and gas), and burned these molecules to make electricity. But in the current energy transformation, this pattern is being reversed. For a green technological culture, we start with renewable electricity and use that to make molecules – specifically hydrogen – which then seeds the synthesis of larger molecules. I guess this seems obvious to a man who runs an electrolyser firm!

The discussion panel was fascinating, consisting of an investor, an entrepreneur and a policy specialist. Collectively their comments painted a picture of an ever-changing forest of complex incentives, indecision in government, and continuing lack of support. In short, nothing new.

When I asked the panel’s views about heating, one panel member pointed out the astonishing extent and complexity of the gas distribution network, and commented that “...if they can’t find something to put in their pipes, they’re toast!“. I think this explains the desperate efforts of the gas companies to promote hydrogen for home heating – something which would be a disaster for the UK.


Friends, I went along to this event to learn, and I learned that there is a lot of experience in a range of hydrogen technologies in the UK and that Brunel University is full of smart, business-focussed engineers.

But overall I was surprised at the continued focus of research on hydrogen for transport. I wish all the companies involved well, but I didn’t understand their enthusiasm.

I didn’t see any work on hydrogen for aviation, and as I see it, hydrogen for terrestrial transport will only be a niche market – heavy equipment and large lorries. And this niche market is a market that will inevitably contract as battery technology improves, providing vehicles with ever improving specifications in terms of range, load and cost.

But what do I know? Time will tell.



9 Responses to “Hydrogen in the UK”

  1. John HANDFORD Says:

    Quite right. Hydrogen for fuel cells or ICE is far less efficient than direct electrical battery storage and use in transport.
    The same waste of effort is being put into hydrogen boilers which pales into insignificance of efficiency compared to heat pumps and the ridiculous expense of replacing the pipeline network should have stopped the idea dead anyway.

  2. TonyA Says:

    As far as I can see, the figures included here and in the “ICE vs BEV vs FC” article are not whole-lifecycle calculations: the measures of efficiency just look at the energy usage rate in brand-new devices, not the real world where machine efficiencies drop over time, materials need to be mined and processed (and are often very limited in supply and already up to 90% under the control of the Chinese, who will look to exploit their near-monopoly and hold electric vehicle manufacturers to ransom on price) and the materials used in actual vehicles vary greatly in weight – compare the weight of batteries and how quickly they wear out and at enormous cost, for example, compared with fuel cells or ICE machines. Once you move on from plain blank-slate physics to practical devices in an evolving adapting world, the cost-benefit calculations start to look very different.

    Also the figures being quoted here are just at this particular moment, but the rate of technological change is so fast, who can say that BCE vehicles, with their heavy ponderous batteries wrenched by miners from the Earth at vast cost, both financially and in terms of environmental and ecological damage, are definitely the way forward? Frankly I’m delighted that people are still exploring fuel cells: the need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels is so vast, we are going to need every form of sustainable energy generation and energy saving method that human ingenuity can discover and develop.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Tony, Good Evening.

      Those are fair comments, but the efficiency advantage of a BEV over a FCV is so large that for conventional light transport, none of the other factors will likely offer any competitive advantage. With battery technology in its current state, there is no room for FCV to establish a niche, and batteries are getting better and cheaper quite quickly.

      You seem to have quite a negative attitude towards BEVs, but in fact the evidence is that BEVs last a long time with minimal battery degradation, at their end of life, the batteries can be fully recycled.

      Like you I am happy that as a country we retain expertise in fuel cell technology, but I think it is unlikely that it will find an application in the transport sector. But I could easily be wrong.

      Best wishes


  3. David Cawkwell Says:

    I can see why JCB are pursuing hydrogen their diggers quit often have to work in remote locations and need lots of power. Just like farm machinery the current battery technology I don’t think is up to the job. But drop a digger off with a hydrogen fuel supply tank could be workable plus using the hydrogen in an engine is also workable and understood with very little redesign of the machine.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      David, Good Evening,

      Yes, I find the JCB approach fascinating. But is suspect it is still an intermediate step that allows them to ‘Go Green’ faster – but I still think that eventually batteries will take over.

      Why? Well the hydrogen would still be delivered by electrolysis of water on site – as I understand it. When batteries reach sufficient capacity and charging rate they will use that electricity more efficiently.

      I could be wrong – the future is notoriously tricky – but the rate at which battery technology is improving is shocking.

      Take a look at this tour of the Amprius Factory showing super-fast charging.

      But I guess these are serious companies and they are completely on top of the relevant technologies.


  4. Joe Says:

    according to this article https://www.science.org/content/article/hidden-hydrogen-earth-may-hold-vast-stores-renewable-carbon-free-fuel hydrogen can be mined. This could change everything.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:


      Thanks for that very interesting article. At the meeting there was a question about so-called “White” hydrogen – naturally occurring hydrogen which could be mined. And it’s clear that if the resource is widespread, it could indeed change things.

      I don’t think it will affect the transition of transport to BEVs – BEVs are cheaper and more efficient – but there are many applications where the availability of low cost natural hydrogen would be a real boon, particularly for the manufacture of fertilisers and seed chemicals.

      Best wishes


  5. Averil Horton Says:


    It was good to see you at the Brunel event on Monday – thank you for making the effort to come along. And thank you too for writing about it. I would make 3 responses to your post.

    1 Efficiency is only ever part of the story – and often a small part.

    2 JCB are already operating hydrogen excavators. They first developed battery versions but found the batteries were too large and heavy for the larger excavators and also had too much downtime to charge. They moved to fuel cells but found they were too expensive for the larger versions. In the end they found that the only system that made sense was the combustion engine.

    3 ‘Large lorries’ are not niche!


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