The challenge at the moment is how to scale up an entire industry, incrementally, across many unconnected markets, such as marine, rail and road. While the spotlight often lands firmly on the development of brand-new modes of transport that can run on zero emissions hydrogen systems – and of course this is exciting – there is an equal focus on exploring the potential of conversions.
Building a case for hydrogen conversions
While bus manufacturers have led the way in putting hydrogen vehicles on the roads, there is currently less widespread availability of hydrogen-powered trucks, boats or trains from the big manufacturers, that can be purchased off the shelf. This means that in these early stages of hydrogen adoption, the first step for many is the conversion of existing vehicles.
At Luxfer, we’re seeing a huge demand for our expertise on projects of this nature across all modes of transport – a 20-fold increase in around two years. In fact, the ratio of our design and engineering resource to conversions versus new build hydrogen systems is around 50/50, and we don’t expect that to change in the next few years.
The Elon Musks of hydrogen
A major driving force behind conversions are SMEs, because such projects allow forward-thinking enterprises to steal a march over larger OEMs.
SMEs naturally benefit from being more agile and it’s possible for them to convert battery-electric or diesel engines to hydrogen relatively quickly, learning as they go and bringing a product to market faster.
An SME is unlikely to have the capital required to develop a hydrogen road vehicle from scratch, and therefore retrofitting is a viable option that gives them a ticket to the game. They can make real headway and innovate through conversion – and this will ultimately pave the way for the ‘Elon Musks of hydrogen’, who could give big truck, bus and car makers a real run for their money. After all, it might take a major manufacturer three years to get a prototype hydrogen vehicle on the road. We’re working with SMEs who can do this within six months.
The sweet spot on the conversion curve
What is fundamental to the hydrogen economy is building a gas distribution and supply network that can cope with gradually increasing demand, without being overwhelmed. Conversions support this process because small operators are working with trailblazing companies on projects that will come to fruition from this year onwards.
A big focus of growth is captive distribution and logistics fleets, which reflects the increased demand for home deliveries, prompted by Covid. The world has changed, and national distribution networks have had to make way for companies based regionally with vehicles that return to the same local depot at the end of the day.
Operators who feel that hydrogen will be important for their future needs can, through retrofitting, have a pilot fleet converted at 12 vehicles a time, for example. Year-on-year they can then build their capacity, commissioning forward-thinking SMEs to do the work.
The benefits of this approach are significant. Within a few years the operators that chose to convert will have learnt how to manage a hydrogen-powered fleet, and they’ll have developed the supply chain for the fuel. This could be a better solution for the industry as a whole – ensuring a steady ramp up of production and distribution that doesn’t outstrip the capacity in any one part of the supply chain.
For fleet operators, across any sector, waiting another five years for available new vehicles on the market will eat into the time that remains before all petrol and diesel must become redundant. This presents them with a requirement to completely replace their fleets in a very short window, all while needing to learn how to operate them – this would mean a huge investment to replace thousands of vehicles all at once. Plus, those who play the waiting game will be on the back foot in terms of understanding what is involved in running such a fleet.
Projects that convert pockets of existing stock enables players to build up their fleets, ensure their operations remain profitable, build up their knowledge and maximise the return on the capital that they already have tied up in existing higher emissions vehicles. Disruptive SMEs who are getting their hands dirty on delivering conversions working beside knowledgeable partners, creating fleets of 10 and 12, will provide the necessary platform for the hydrogen economy to thrive.
A cost-efficient solution
Some companies will be required to opt for conversion because they need to extract value from vehicles that were built with a life expectancy that has been slashed by targets to rid the transport network of diesel by 2040.
The impact of this is sector-specific, with trains and the marine industry among the most affected. The initial outlay is extremely high for a newly built train, which would be expected to operate for 25 years and then be re-certified for a further 15 years of service. Operators who procured a train in the last decade – and thousands were purchased from 2015 onwards – will find it hard to justify scrapping it for a hydrogen version. Those trains could have 30 years more good service in them – so converting rail stock to hydrogen becomes cost effective.
Likewise, marine vessels are high-cost units that can operate for decades – making conversion to hydrogen power most appealing.
A growing global appetite for hydrogen retrofits
At Luxfer we’re seeing demand rise exponentially across Europe and within all transport sectors, from boats, trains, planes, refuse trucks, mechanical handling, vans, refrigerated vans, light trucks, cars – the list goes on.
Although Europe and Asia are leading the charge in every direction, other regions are catching up. Luxfer is involved in many projects in Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America.
Investment is being secured from private organisations as well as governments, underpinning that this is the era for conversions. This is especially true when it comes to captive fleets such as the regional delivery networks, supermarket vans and even tug boats that operate around international ports.
A trusted partner in Luxfer
Luxfer has partnered with a number of successful conversion projects including the UK’s first hydrogen train, HydroFLEX. Our alternative fuel experts worked in close collaboration with Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research, which won Department for Transport funding to support the HydroFLEX concept.
The former Thameslink electric train was retrofitted with a four-cylinder hydrogen solution that was developed and assembled at our Nottingham facility, and in September 2020, the train hit the mainline for the first time. It also had a starring role at last autumn’s COP26 in which it took its very first passenger journey at the Climate Change Summit, with special guests using the ‘on-board boardroom’.
It’s fantastic and exciting to work with such a range of companies who are thinking differently about the capability of hydrogen technology.
Naturally, retrofitting means you have the constraints of an existing framework that you need to adapt to. Replacing systems that were based on a liquid fuel with ones that need to work on gaseous fuel has its inherent challenges. While liquid can be stored in any shape, the optimal shape for high pressure gas storage is still cylindrical.
The thrill of the work is that every conversion project is different and what we offer is a bespoke design and manufacture service, featuring our G-Stor™ H2 cylinders.
Projects are being turned around in as little as six months and 2022 will be the year when people begin to see hydrogen vehicles in service on UK roads – most likely beginning in Scotland with refuse trucks and utility vehicles.
The beauty of Luxfer’s role in leading the charge for conversions is that we can help our partners, thanks to cross fertilisation of ideas. A rail company may never collaborate with a shipbuilder, but our engineers have delivered retrofits for both and, those connections and cross pollination can spark interesting and practical concepts.
We also support with regulation, derived from our decades of expertise in high pressure gas containment. For example, where directives may not exist, we can explore what applies in parallel markets and consider transferable norms that will deliver against safety requirements.
Our customers reap the benefits of working with a company that has tried and tested experience and understands every component needed to make the optimum recommendations specific to their project. We are supporting SMEs with the hunger to drive this market, and we can help them realise their ambitions.
What Luxfer brings to the table is advice and resource from across the transport sector which companies who are on the conversion curve might otherwise be unable to access.
And an important byproduct is that we benefit too. Rolling our sleeves up to advance the market for conversions drives innovation within our own business, helping to shaping our own technological developments.