Hydrogen highway

Andrew Williams | 12 years ago

During February, the UK government unveiled plans to establish South Wales as a major national hub for the development of alternative fuel technologies and build a “hydrogen highway” along the M4 motorway.

The centrepiece of the high profile initiative is the designation of the region as a Low Carbon Economic Area (LCEA).  LCEAs aim to accelerate the development of priority low carbon sectors by focussing on geographic areas of the UK where there are clear existing strengths.  They aim to drive forward the development of specific low carbon industry sectors by bringing together local, national and regional policy ‘levers’ in a strategic and co-ordinated manner – for example via infrastructure development, research and development, demonstration, planning policies, skills provision and investment.

In addition to new funding, the LCEA will also aim to bring together all the necessary infrastructure, skills development and incentive programmes necessary to accelerate the development of alternative fuel technologies in the region.  An industry led steering group will now begin work on driving specific projects forward, and the Welsh Assembly said that talks were already underway with carmakers, fleet and bus operators to encourage them to locate new research and development projects and vehicle trials in Wales.

The plan to establish Wales as an alternative fuel hub received an immediate boost, with both electric car developer Gordon Murray Design and steel giant Corus signalling their support for the LCEA award and hinting at plans to work with the region on new projects.

Wales becomes the fifth UK LCEA, joining the marine energy hub in the South West, the North East low carbon vehicle area, the nuclear supply chain LCEA in the North West and Yorkshire, the advanced automotive engineering centre in the Midlands, and Greater Manchester’s establishment as an LCEA for the built environment.

The ‘Hydrogen Highway’

The announcement of the new LCEA status coincided with the unveiling of a flagship project to extend the alternative refuelling infrastructure along the M4 corridor.  The scheme, dubbed the ‘hydrogen highway,’ will provide a comprehensive refuelling infrastructure for zero emission vehicles.  Under the proposals, backed by a substantial £500,000 government grant, hydrogen, compressed natural gas and bio methane refuelling points, as well as electric car plug in facilities, will initially be installed along the Welsh section of the M4 on a busy stretch between the cities of Swansea, Cardiff and Newport.

In a separate announcement, the Welsh Assembly government said it would then seek to collaborate with several other regions in England to ensure that similar refuelling and recharging stations are installed in London, Swindon and parts of the Midlands, making it possible for drivers of hydrogen, electric and other alternative fuel vehicles to easily make long distance motorway journeys for the first time and creating the nation’s longest continuous alternative fuel route.

The long-term hope is that the scheme will build on the existing expertise in South Wales to develop hydrogen on a commercial basis in a manner that is closely linked to end users.

Launching the Hydrogen Highway plan at Port Talbot’s Baglan Energy Park, Welsh Assembly Environment Secretary Jane Davidson said Wales would be a trailblazer in hydrogen technology.  Echoing this support, Gordon James, Cardiff-based director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, welcomed the scheme but said it was also vital that renewable energy was used in the production of the hydrogen fuel.

The hope is that hydrogen-powered cars and public transport would be able to use the Welsh stretch by 2015.

Centre of Excellence

A major reason for the decision to choose South Wales as the UK’s latest LCEA was the fact that the region already possesses a great deal of expertise in the area of hydrogen research.  In recognition of this existing capability, one of the main objectives of the new initiative will be a drive to establish an internationally recognised centre of excellence and expertise in hydrogen energy technologies

As part of this drive, the University of Glamorgan also announced that it is to invest £6.3m in a new hydrogen research programme, which will develop new processes, products and services in hydrogen energy and include the development of a hydrogen combustion engine test facility at its Renewable Hydrogen Research and Development Centre in Baglan, near Port Talbot.

Forming a component part of the umbrellaCymru H2 Wales project, it is intended that the investment will create 23 new research staff over the next three years and a further 63 permanent jobs in the region’s hydrogen energy sector.

The major funding boost will enable the university to further develop expertise within a number of research themes, including:

  • the production of hydrogen from renewable electricity;
  • the production of hydrogen fuel cells for use in clean, green vehicles;
  • the strategic build-up of Wales’ hydrogen refuelling infrastructure; and,
  • biological hydrogen production (using bacteria).

In a previous project, the university has already produced a “Tribrid” minibus which can be fuelled by hydrogen, lead acid battery or ultra-capacitors.  It plans to expand the fleet to transport students to and from its campuses.

The University will also benefit from an additional £120,900 in support from the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Grant Programme (AFIGP), which supports the installation of refuelling or recharging stations for a range of alternative fuels, including natural gas, biogas, hydrogen and electricity.

The scheme, launched in 2005, is administered by Cenex, the Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Technology, on behalf of the UK Department for Transport.  In the three years to 2008 it has funded a total of 77 electric vehicle stations (including 82 charging points), 5 natural gas stations and 20 bio-ethanol stations.

The University will use this additional funding to build a new multi fuel filling station at its Pontypridd campus and further develop its existing facility at the Hydrogen Centre in Baglan.

Also in February, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) announced that Rhondda Cynon Taf was one of a number of local Welsh councils considering switching transport fleets to hydrogen or other alternative fuels.  It is hoped that the move could provide further impetus to the M4 corridor ‘hydrogen highway’ scheme, as well as contributing a much needed economic boost to the region.

Ieuan Wyn Jones, Welsh Minister for the Economy and Transport, said that the award of the LCEA status would provide a major boost to the country’s low carbon initiatives. “It will position Wales globally as a leading centre for driving forward this technology and provide us with a competitive advantage when attracting new investment and research and development into next generation technologies,” he said.

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Demonstrator Programme

The announcement of the exciting plans for South Wales coincided with news that a total of 15 hydrogen demonstration projects have been awarded a share of £7.2m from the UK Technology Strategy Board.

Devised by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Technology Strategy Board, the Hydrogen Demonstrator Programme aims to assist UK companies to commercialise these technologies and contribute to meeting UK and EU climate change targets.

The programme’s focus is on the development of technologies and their associated supply chains that will offer significant quantitative improvements in:

  • lowering costs and significantly improving reliability, durability and performance levels of low, intermediate and high temperature fuel cell systems (with various fuel sources) for the stationary, transport and portable markets;
  • addressing the challenges related to hydrogen generation, storage and utilisation; and,
  • the acceleration of their deployment to market


Taken as a whole, the above developments provide yet another clear sign that hydrogen technology, whilst not yet dominant, continues to stake a claim to form a major component of the emerging alternative automotive fuels infrastructure.  Despite what many industry analysts have predicted, this is a technology that refuses to go away, and which continues to be viewed by many as a credible and viable alternative to electric and battery technology.

In fact, the levels of investment and government support committed to this project mean that it may now be reasonable to predict that, at least in the UK, hydrogen remains a major player, and is perhaps an early indication that a ‘mix and match’ approach consisting of a wide range of potential alternative technologies will emerge, at least in the short to medium term.

Whatever happens, it is likely that the market will continue to play a significant, and perhaps decisive, role in determining the ultimate complexion of the post-petroleum refuelling infrastructure.  Many of the major automotive manufacturers remain much more committed to developing and promoting hybrid and all electric models, and it is likely that the buying public will be exposed to this technology sooner, and on a much larger scale, than hydrogen.  Although some companies, particularly Honda and Mercedes, have formed robust strategies for the development and deployment of fuel cell models, battery-powered cars are far more likely to reach the market first and perhaps gain a critical ‘first mover’ advantage in the public consciousness.

About the author

Andrew Williams