Can the UK afford to lose industry and economy, by not investing in hydrogen?

Advanced Propulsion Centre CEO says we need to learn from the mistakes we made with batteries and make our mark on a global stage.

The UK could dominate European fuel cell production and be a centre of excellence globally, according to the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), which last night, on the eve of the Spring Statement, shared their latest insight to politicians and industry at an event in Westminster.

As the world continues to debate alternatives to the current reliance on fossil fuels for heat and transport, and their sensitivity to global events, hydrogen is increasingly being offered as a potential solution.

APC analysis of the fuel cell and hydrogen tank system has demonstrated that the most valuable components could be mass manufactured in the UK, reducing reliance on overseas markets and building sustainable UK-based jobs in transport and industrial energy solutions.

We need to learn the lessons of the 1980s and 90s where we were caught sleeping at the wheel with lithium-ion battery production and the East Asian countries overtook us,” said APC CEO, Ian Constance.

“Families need jobs and security and there’s an opportunity here to create and safeguard green growth in an area where the UK already has existing capability. We already have 15% of the fuel cell value chain radiating from UK businesses but this could be as much as 65% just by expanding on current strengths in electrochemistry and coatings or using our automotive capability to volume manufacture components like bipolar plates and stack assemblies.

Investment will be needed to retain this leading position but we’re sharing this insight in the hope it helps industry and government make long-term strategic decisions.”

APC forecast rapid growth in fuel cell platforms for light duty vehicles from 2030 as hydrogen refuelling networks expand and hydrogen at the pump drops to $4–5/kg. They expect that 14GW of on-board fuel stack power and 400,000 hydrogen carbon fibre tanks will be required to meet the demands of FCEV production in the UK alone by 2035. That’s the equivalent of 140,000 vehicles.

There’s also a clear role emerging for hydrogen combustion, particularly in the medium and heavy-duty sectors. APC forecast that by 2040 across Europe, 40% of new HGVs sold will be battery electric, 30% fuel cell and 15% hydrogen combustion. The UK produced 1.3 million vehicles in the UK during 2019 (pre-pandemic), but manufactured 2.5 million light duty engines, with an estimated total value of £8.5 billion. 80% of these were exported to Europe. The APC are already supporting projects for hydrogen combustion engines with Cummins and Dolphin N2 who hope to continue UK production of near zero-tailpipe engines.

Additionally, most UK manufactured vehicles are SUVs and 4x4s or utility vehicles, off-highway vehicles, light commercial vans and prestige marques – all types of vehicle where power, utility, range and off-road capability are important and could benefit from a hydrogen powertrain. Similarly, export and trade tariffs demand a certain level of ‘local’ manufacturing and APC strongly believe we should be looking to localise the supply chain and anchor the vehicle production in the UK.

Constance added: “The question we should be asking is whether we can afford to NOT take the opportunity. There was a time when the UK led battery cells research but we failed to capitalise on that from a manufacturing perspective. We are catching up with ground-breaking research and gigafactory development – AESC Envision and Britishvolt announcing new plants in the past year – and we still expect batteries to dominate the passenger car sector in the next decade or so. But heavy-duty applications – public transport, marine, rail and air – will need a different solution. Hydrogen will play a part, the UK could have a key role – and that means jobs and economic growth.”

APC will continue to work with government and industry to realise the opportunity for the UK for on-board hydrogen vehicle technology. Like batteries, ensuring infrastructure is moving at the same pace as on-board innovation is a challenge that needs to be addressed for both refuelling and generation. The UK government hydrogen strategy released in August 2021, provides a clear pathway for blue and green hydrogen production and DfT truck trials are being used to assess the infrastructure required to support future truck fleets.

Read the APC’s fuel cell ambition and learn more about the value chain