25/02/2017 10:05 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 10:08 GMT

The Fuel That Could Solve Britain's Lethal Air Pollution Crisis Has One Big Drawback

It's a battle of mind over planet.

ISABEL INFANTES via Getty Images
Air pollution is becoming a huge issue in many western cities, including London

Last month in London one air pollution monitoring station breached its annual limit just five days into the new year. Soon after, the Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a ‘red alert’ over dangerous smog.

The problem of lethal air pollution though is far from limited to the capital with the problem linked to as many as 40,000 early deaths in Britain. Cities and major towns across the UK are now consistently breaching limits, resulting in a ‘final warning’ from EU regulators.

But just 30 miles from central London, a relatively innocuous service station could be home to a solution. Next to the rows of petrol and diesel pumps at the busy Shell garage at Cobham services on the M25, a gleaming new stand dispensing hydrogen fuel sits alongside.

The new Shell hydrogen pump at Cobham, Surrey, includes an educational mural 

Hydrogen has long been touted as a potential aide to the energy transition - the journey from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives used for cars and trucks.

And Shell is betting big on hydrogen as part of its New Energies business, which aims to navigate the uncertain path from oil and gas to greener fuels.

There is no single silver bullet. All of us would like a simple solution, there isn’t one,” Sinead Lynch, Shell UK country chair told The Huffington Post this week. “You can’t pick winners, I’m not sure what the winner will be.”

There is no single silver bullet.Sinead Lynch, Shell UK

Yet the oil major, one of the world’s biggest energy firms, has invested in the technology behind hydrogen - which uses a process of electrolysis to allow for production at pumps themselves, reducing the need for storage on site.

You can store energy, use it for power generation, use it for fuel,” Lynch said.

Fuel cells in vehicles generate power by using hydrogen in the tank and oxygen from the outside, with the only resulting emission being water vapour.

Sinead Lynch, chair of Shell UK, said hydrogen's versatility has attracted the firm 

Electrolytic Hydrogen is the cleanest and lowest-cost renewable fuel available for fuel cell electric vehicles,” said Dr Graham Cooley, Chief Executive of ITM Power, a Sheffield-based business supplying the technology to Shell.

Cooley pointed to anticipated costs of around £10 per kg of electrolytic hydrogen at the pump - or around £50 per tank.

This will lower to a target of around £7 per kilo with time, making it a real competitor with petrol and diesel in terms of price.

Hydrogen gas mixes with oxygen to power fuel cell vehicles like the Toyota Mirai, which costs around £66,000

Shell isn’t alone in betting on hydrogen. Toyota, Hyundai and BMW all have fuel cell cars which use the gas.

One hydrogen vehicle reaches 700km in range and re-fills in just five minutes.

The UK government has a target for 65 hydrogen fuel pumps across the nation by 2020 - perhaps low compared with Germany’s 400 by 2023.

For now though, Shell plans to open three in the south east of England. “We’re in a pre-commercial phase,” Lynch said.

Yet for all its obvious benefits hydrogen carries one big drawback - the widespread perception it is perilously unsafe.

Bettmann via Getty Images
The Hindenburg disaster occurred on May 6, 1937, seen here in this original photo. The event was chronicled in a Hollywood film. Hydrogen's image is tarred by the incident

The fact hydrogen is explosive was proved with the doomed-Nazi blimp Hindenburg, which crashed to the ground in a fireball in front of assembled media in 1937.

The disaster claimed 36 lives and inspired a blockbuster Hollywood film, linking hydrogen and fatal fire in the minds of millions.

Yet today carmakers argue the explosive nature of the gas isn’t dissimilar to that of petrol and diesel.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Toyota Mirai hydrogen car tops up at Cobham services in Surrey

“I think it’s just our perception of hydrogen being extremely flammable and dangerous compared to what we’re comfortable with in this day and age, which is gasoline,” a Toyota spokesperson told Computer World. “Gasoline is also an extremely flammable fuel, and one that does not escape like hydrogen.”

Advances in technology have now made the gas a viable product on forecourts that are already used to selling flammable petrols and oils.

And its unique fuel cell application means that hydrogen tanks in the Toyota Mirai, for example, are pressurised up to 10,000 psi. They’ve been dropped from great heights and even shot at point-blank range by researchers. All without leaking the gas contained within.

Thomas Peter / Reuters
Honda launched its fuel-cell car Clarity last year

Hydrogen cars on the road

Toyota launched its Mirai hydrogen car in the UK in 2015, priced at around £66,000, and aimed at corporate and business customers.

The company last year said it was importing around 50 of the model into Britain.

The Mirai’s fuel tanks are made of a strong carbon fibre shell with a glass fibre layer inside. The firm said it is “more than satisfied” with strength and safety levels.

Other brands with vehicles available include Honda’s Clarity, Hyundai’s ix35 and BMW’s Hydrogen 7, though production availability and prices vary.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are exempt from road tax and from the London congestion charge.

But insurance can be hard to find. While less powerful cars generally attract lower premiums, not all insurers cover eco-friendly cars, according to Compare The Market.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
The hydrogen fuel cell sits inside the engine of a Mirai hydrogen fuel powered car

But the perception of safety continues to be an issue for companies investing in the gas, and it’s one Shell admits it is grappling with.

“Safety is the number one priority in everything we do,” Lynch said. “Hydrogen is a mature industry. It is proven to be safe.

“But it’s a different type of fuel and people need to get used to that. That’s the part of this we need to really think about.”

Toby Melville / Reuters
Shell along with other firms is grappling with perception of hydrogen as being unsafe

The speed at which companies and consumers make the switch to hydrogen will be crucial to solving the air pollution crisis.

And despite Shell’s move into hydrogen in Britain, campaigners point out their efforts are a drop in the ocean.

Greenpeace UK’s senior climate adviser Charlie Kronick said: “Moving away from polluting diesel cars is an absolute priority, but this token gesture is disappointing even by Shell’s low standards.” 

Video: How hydrogen fuel works

Greenpeace pointed out Shell’s investment in new forms of energy represents around one percent of its total capital spend, which still focuses on fossil fuels.

Nonetheless, with the German government investing millions of euros in the new fuel and with other investments on the west coast of America, hydrogen looks set to be a real alternative on some forecourts.

The UK government said hydrogen was a potentially important technology, alongside battery electric vehicles. It believes 65 refuelling stations will be sufficient to help a national roll-out of vehicles.

“We want the UK to be at the forefront of the transition to ultra-low emission vehicles,” a Department for Transport spokesperson said.

But the development of hydrogen as a real alternative fuel will take time.

“For the average person the car is the biggest decision you make after a house,” Lynch said. “You don’t expect to think about where you’re going to fuel it, is it safe, where can you insure it. The whole supply chain will take time.

Everything takes time that’s worth doing.”