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

Last month in London one air pollution monitoring station breached it’s 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.

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.

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.

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

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.