Haskel’s Stephen Learney confident about advancements in hydrogen refuelling tech

Despite the road transport industry emerging from the pandemic only to confront skyrocketing fuel prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the journey towards sustainability still cannot be ignored – particularly with fuel security in mind. As recent events in the UK have shown, including the delay in the introduction of Manchester’s Clean Air Zone, the ease at which hauliers can upgrade their fleets to zero-emission vehicles is absolutely key.

Haskel’s Stephen Learney confident about advancements in hydrogen refuelling tech

Part of the equation here is, of course, the construction of vital infrastructure, whether it be charging points or hydrogen refuelling stations. Given that the latter is considered more practical for haulage than the former, road transport firms will be keen to learn more about the development of hydrogen technology – most notably the refuelling stations themselves.

One of the companies specialising in this area is Haskel, who have already supplied a number of hydrogen refuelling stations in Europe and Australia among other locations.

How soon will we start to see these stations become more widespread though? And to what extent will the supply and cost problems connected with hydrogen be overcome? To find answers to those questions and more, we took the opportunity to speak to Stephen Learney, General Manager of Haskel.

Thanks for talking to us Stephen. How would you evaluate the health of the hydrogen economy at this moment in time?

It’s twofold. It’s in great shape. If I look at it purely in terms of the level of activity in our business and associated businesses, when compared to 2019 we effectively would multiply the business 10 times in 2020, and double that in 2021. We’re on track to double that again in 2022.

I think we’re in a mix of companies who are experiencing comparable dramatic growth. However, health is a different question. The supply chain is most definitely struggling to keep up with demand and consequently we are continuing to struggle to keep up with demand for refuelling infrastructure, which is what we’re all about.

That needs to change in several ways. There needs to be significant investment, particularly in some key aspects of the componentry that goes into that refuelling infrastructure. But also, we have the potential to outstrip the supply of hydrogen with the supply of refuelling infrastructure. So not only is our own immediate value chain struggling to keep up with demand, there needs to be a sustained push to accelerate the whole conversion of green energy, of which there is plenty, into hydrogen.

There is a massive amount of green energy available. We’re just harnessing it today. I’ve heard commentary about how we need to be able to produce more green energy, yet we already have the key infrastructure in spades with wind farms and solar. Although we perhaps don’t have that much of the latter in the UK, we do have wave power and hydro power. Nevertheless, the supply of the infrastructure to convert that into hydrogen and oxygen is not keeping up with demand.

How confident are you that the existing issues with both the supply and cost of hydrogen will be remedied in the not-too-distant future?

I’m absolutely confident they’re going to get it worked out. Our biggest volume of business for refuelling in the last couple of years has been China. I am convinced that China is going to do for electrolysis what they did for solar, which is to turn it over to a mass production process in some huge manufacturing facilities. That will more than halve the cost of the electrolysis side and the rest of the world will catch up. I have absolutely no doubt they’re going to do that.

When I’ve been in China, their commitment to hydrogen has been phenomenal. Although I haven’t seen it yet, the first message I got about the next five year plan is that there’s going to continue to be massive investments. So I think they’re going to lead the charge.

Then, when I look at places like Australia, they’ve been slow off the mark. However, I think the government over there has got their head around the fact that this could be a huge economic opportunity for them – certainly in the long term as things like their natural gas resources diminish. Hydrogen is going to protect that source of revenue for them.

I’m also encouraged by what’s come out of the USA in the form of the aim to hit $1 per kilogram in a decade. There are so many places around the world talking about that kind of target and that they’re going to achieve it.

Even if they only get halfway there, with today’s energy costs, at least we’re going to more than meet the competitive demand against existing fuel sources, like diesel and petrol. So yeah, we’re gonna get there.

I recall that some time ago, Morgan & Stanley, one of the big researchers, and McKinsey, did a study predicting 2027 was when hydrogen would have parity with diesel. I think that’s probably going to be close to the truth. So yes, I’m very confident.

What have you learned from the operation of your existing Haskell refuelling stations in Europe?

Well, first of all, the technology today is not easy to do. Our company’s history has been based around compressing, storing and moving gases at very, very high pressures. That’s a niche part of the market that has sustained us very well for the last 75 years.

It also fortuitously puts us right in the sweet spot for refuelling, given the pressures needed for hydrogen refuelling – we’re talking about 350 bar or 10,000 psi. Those kinds of pressures are not common in industrial use. There’s really only a handful of companies around the world who’ve got any depth of experience in this space. So that’s why we’re looking to be in there.

Then, getting all of these bits to work together, so you can take hydrogen from whatever source and dispense it to a vehicle safely and quickly, is quite a leap of technology. Again, we’ve been lucky as, early on, we got involved in a project funded by the European Union to look at advanced refuelling technology. That gave us quite a big leap in terms of our technical development.

I have absolutely no doubt that the technology we’re using today is going to look so old – even in five years’ time. When I talk to my team about this, I tell them that we’re building the equivalent today of the 1906 Ford Model N, which was the model before the mass-produced Model T. Not only do we have to go from the Ford Model T to the 2014 Toyota Mirai, but we also have to do it in the next 5-10 years.

Today, what we and all our competitors are doing is taking technologies, which for the most part have been designed for another purpose, and sticking them together to make them work. That can’t be the future if there are going to be millions of hydrogen refuelling stations around the world. This technology has to be built to serve a purpose, which is to dispense safely for the consumer.

We’ve got to join up all the different components of technology that we’re sticking together, so that they are acting as one efficient system to deliver that solution. We’ve learned a lot and we’ve been very lucky to learn from mistakes, often a series of them – that’s how some of the best learning comes along. I have no doubt that that’s going to continue long past me being with the business.

Transport companies are all having to make choices regarding the decarbonisation of their fleets. What in your opinion makes a hydrogen truck a better option than a standard electric powered vehicle?

It almost all boils down to range anxiety and time. I firmly believe that battery power is the way forward for commuter vehicles. If you’re doing less than 30 miles a day, and you can plug in at work and at home, then that absolutely makes a huge amount of sense.

On the other hand, there can be range anxiety when carrying a large load and thus consuming huge amounts of energy while travelling. There can also be anxieties about being in remote spots. In addition, there are those who need to be sure they’ve got all the available energy available all the time, as opposed to a diminishing energy source in the shape of a battery. It may be that you want to fill up fast because you’re against the clock and the drivers don’t want to be hanging around too long waiting.

I think that’s the big difference with hydrogen as it can effectively replace diesel. You’re giving the same experience to the user by replacing petrol and diesel.

How cost-effective are hydrogen filling stations compared to electric charging points?

The infrastructure today is more expensive for hydrogen refuelling. In part, it’s because we’re at the start of that technology journey. Most of the things that we use to build a station have been built for another purpose. As we evolve as a business, and we’re evolving our technology very quickly, we will see those costs come down dramatically.

I think I saw a report saying that the refuelling infrastructure was typically around 70% of the total cost of the refuelling experience. I have absolute confidence that’s going to more than halve in the next five years as we get to grips with the technology, certainly as some of the newer technologies that are currently in the pipeline start to come to fruition.

Photo: Haskel

What are the biggest technological leaps Haskel has made in recent years with regards to hydrogen?

When it comes to the high pressures that we’re talking about with hydrogen, the dominant technology that we’ve been using is powered by compressed air. It’s a pump, but it could even be called an engine because it acts like one.

So historically, it’s been that way for a whole bunch of reasons around the ease of using that kind of technology. It is great in an industrial setting, because almost every manufacturing company has compressed air in their business. So you can hook that up to this little engine that will then produce these very high pressures safely.

We got involved in a project for one of the engine companies using high-pressure compressed natural gas as a fuel, as a way of cutting down emissions.

That put us on a journey where we developed a hydraulic-powered compression solution. Now, these have been around for a long time, but not at the scale that we needed for this type of engine. That became the next step in a generation if you like, and it does two things. One is that you can build a compressor, which is much bigger than the air-driven ones. Also, there is an energy saving between the two, because in the case of the former ones, you have to use energy to compress and then you must use that energy to drive a motor too. There’s some energy loss in that process.

As for the hydraulic system, you take electricity and use it straight away to start pushing, which consumes less energy. So in terms of running costs the hydraulic system brings a significant improvement in operational running costs.

That may not be so important from a capital point of view when you buy the equipment. But over time, when these things are going to last 10-20 years, you’re going to see those savings passed on to the consumer.

The next leap is to go straight from an electric power source to compressing hydrogen gas. Last year we launched a new product that had been 15 years in development – technology that allows you to take from an electric source to compress at these very high pressures.

We’re having a lot of success with that now and we’ve got a technical programme on the go at the moment which will be capable of working with hydrogen by the first quarter of next year at the latest. What that does is provide a further leap in terms of cutting the operational running costs of the system. Moreover, in terms of reliability, electric motors are much more stable and known animals.

So we expect that to be the next big step that’s going to push down running costs for business.

Which countries do you feel are in the best position to establish a rich hydrogen filling network first?

Our benchmark for determining this is whether a country’s government has produced a roadmap. Not just any roadmap, but one that gets down to a level of detail that allows you to make decisions around infrastructure – what type it should be and where it should be placed.

The country which has developed the most valuable roadmap is New Zealand. We’ve been fortunate enough to be working with the developer that the government there has chosen to work with, a company called Hiringa.

They’ve done a huge amount of background work on data analytics concerning traffic flow, particularly heavy goods traffic, across the whole of New Zealand. They came up with a plan which said that 24 stations of varying capacities were needed at strategically positioned spots around New Zealand. No more than 200 kilometres should be between each station, and that will cover all the needs of New Zealand. It’s brilliant in its development.

Also, when it comes to execution, the roadmap actually makes our life so much easier. We can say: “Okay, it’s 24 stations and they need to look like this”. This helps drive down costs because you can go into a lot of standardisation.

After New Zealand, the Netherlands also have a very strong roadmap and they’re progressing well. They’re actually going through their second stage and they’ve built a lot of stations over the last decade. They’re now upgrading those stations with the newer technology that we’ve got.

There’s also Benelux, France and Germany – those countries are adopting hydrogen, and especially Portugal is quite advanced too. On top of that, I’m seeing a lot more activity now coming out of Eastern Europe.

China, as I mentioned earlier, in the last year or two has opened more new stations than the rest of the world put together. So they’re obviously very well advanced.

Australia has been rather slow, but they’re going to pick up the pace quite quickly. They don’t yet have what I would call a mature roadmap, just like the UK. However, at least the government is rallying behind it.

So what we look for as a business is whether the government has produced a good roadmap, one that investors can then take and put into action.

When will we begin to see hydrogen-powered vehicles and filling stations in our daily lives?

I think you’re going to start seeing that from 2025 onwards. But to get any kind of real scale, you’re looking even further ahead – more like 2027.

The reason I say 2025 is that I know that there are a number of technology developments going on around much bigger stations than we have today. In China there are stations that will dispense roughly 3,000 kilograms of hydrogen per day – enough for 74 buses.

At that scale, you’re where you need to be. If you’re going to put a refuelling station on a main arterial route for heavy goods vehicles, we think you’d need to be up at around the 5,000-6,000 mark.

We’re aiming for a 6,000 kilogram per day station to meet the kind of demand that is needed. I know there are a number of technology developments going on, and they’re going to come to maturity around about 2024.

By the beginning of 2025, you’re going to be starting to see these stations go onto the market. Then you’ve probably got another couple of years for that large station infrastructure to be rolled out. It’ll be targeted first around specific highways.

Then I think you’ll also see trucks and fuel cells will have caught up. The way most businesses work is typically there’s a hub or two just outside of town. It’s relatively easy to put in the infrastructure around that. We may see those come faster, as we’ve seen in Aberdeen for instance.

However, before we get buses in cities and towns, I think you’re looking at a 2027-kind-of timetable.

Finally, the pandemic brought about a serious acceleration in the process of digitalisation. Do you feel the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the knock-on effects on the price of fuel, and fuel security, could also speed up the process of hydrogen adoption?

Yes, absolutely. I think the pandemic coincided with an upsurge in the environmental movement.

It was the right message for governments to be putting out, because the way we’re going to recover from this recession is by infrastructure investment, which is the classic means by which governments do that.

Pointing that infrastructure investment at renewable energy is going to be a vote winner for quite some time, especially as the youth of today grow up. That’s a huge driver for the uptick in activity around renewables, as well as a resurgence in confidence around focusing on renewables.

Certainly what’s happened to energy prices due to the war in Ukraine has brought energy security into sharp focus, especially for countries like Germany and those countries in the east of Europe nearer Russia, who have become somewhat dependent on Russia for their fuel.

Energy security has always been part of the story around renewable energy. But I think it’s really gone up the agenda now. You even have people on [popular BBC debate programme] Question Time mentioning hydrogen in the conversation, which can only be a positive thing that moves this business forward.

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