Decarbonising transport

Are we ready to convert the humble gas/petrol station into a future-ready ‘hydrogen refuelling’ station?
Authors: David Luscombe, Tej Gidda
Hydrogen fueling station

At a glance

As a consequence of global COVID-19 restrictions on movement, transportation and mobility, which accounts for 57% of global oil demand, declined at an unprecedented scale in early 2020.

Are we ready to convert the humble gas/petrol station into a future-ready ‘hydrogen refuelling’ station?

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), road transport in regions with lockdowns in place dropped between 50% and 75%, with global average road transport activity almost falling to 50% of the 2019 level by the end of March 2020.


As countries re-emerge from lockdowns, the world’s love affair with passenger cars will inevitably resume, but the transportation sector will still have to confront its decarbonisation challenge.   

In 2019, the world’s global transport emissions increased by less than .05% (compared with 1.9% annual growth since 2000) thanks to efficiency improvements, electrification and greater use of biofuels.

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So how can we make a real difference to reduce transportation emissions?

Transport planners have been asking this question for decades and there have been significant steps forward in terms of designing urban communities that reduce emissions through more efficient movement patterns.

However, to make any real difference, our road transport future is going to need to rely on the increased uptake of more efficient vehicles for both commercial and passenger use. Leading the charge in this regard are electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and innovations in biofuels.

Hydrogen is now seen as the clean energy commodity of the future due to its versatility in power generation, storage, industrial heating, decarbonising gas networks and, importantly, as a zero emission power source for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

A transformation of the oil & gas industry - The opportunity to make and sell hydrogen

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The ongoing volatility of oil prices has served to hasten the journey that big oil majors were already on to diversify their business into low-carbon commodities, such as hydrogen, which is shaping up as the world’s most versatile and exportable energy vector.  

The opportunity for oil and gas companies is to make and sell zero-emission, highly efficiently hydrogen energy for a variety of end-uses including fuelling hydrogen cars. While there is a market for both electric vehicles and fuel cell cars, the latter demonstrates a new and exciting component of energy transition that has broad application. 

And while both hydrogen fuel cell cars and battery electric vehicles are technically electric vehicles because they are powered by an electric motor, there is one crucial difference between the two – hydrogen cars produce their own electricity. So, unlike fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles that source power from a built-in battery charged from an external power source, hydrogen vehicles tap into their own on-board power plant: the fuel cell.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles still need to be refuelled – they need hydrogen gas pumped into the vehicle’s fuel tank just like you would petrol or diesel. You can fill up quickly, the same way you would with petrol or diesel. And once it has a full tank, a fuel-cell vehicle can travel just as far as a ‘normal’ petrochemical-based vehicle. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have many positive attributes: few pollutants (the only emission from hydrogen cars is water), low noise, short re-fuelling times and long drive times between refuelling.

So what’s the stumbling block? 

Well, there are a few, including technical, regulatory and commercial challenges, but from an infrastructure perspective, the biggest barrier to the broader uptake of hydrogen fuel cell cars is the scarcity of refuelling options.

Currently, a hydrogen engine car is refuelled at specially designed fuel pumps, of which there are still very few globally. At the end of 2019, there were only around 40 refuelling stations for hydrogen-powered cars in the US, and approximately 80 in Germany.

In Australia, while there has been some major steps forward, there are still less than 10 around the country.

There is enormous potential for the oil and gas industry to look at repurposing or retrofitting the huge number of existing petrol station assets (currently orientated to petrol and diesel retailing), to meet future anticipated high demand for hydrogen car refuelling.

Could converting gas/petrol stations play an important role in taking hydrogen-powered vehicles a significant step closer to mainstream uptake? 

How about hydrogen gas pumps finding their way into ordinary petrol stations

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Here’s an idea…

One concept that could be investigated is making hydrogen gas onsite at existing petrol stations, on a small scale, using ammonia (NH3) which could be stored in small quantities onsite, with extra supplies trucked to the site when required. 

There are a number of advantages to this idea, including: 

  • Existing petrol station assets can be retrofitted relatively easily; using the same footprint reduces the issue of locating new sites. 
  • The hydrogen gas (from ammonia) could be made every 24hrs onsite (at night, off peak) and so only a small amount would be needed each day. In this way, it could be stored safely and require less energy to keep it stable.  
  • The energy used to make the hydrogen could be made onsite from renewable sources (solar panels for example) during the day and be stored as energy in a battery. 
  • If additional power is needed, it could be sourced from the grid. During the day, excess power generated onsite from renewables could be sold back to the grid,  ultimately making the petrol station a carbon-neutral operation for the owner. 
  • Producing hydrogen onsite from ammonia is highly efficient –a large amount of hydrogen can be made from one tank of ammonia – making it onsite at the petrol station versus trucking hydrogen from another production site makes it safer. Storing and trucking ammonia is now common practice and can be done safely.   
  • These self-sufficient sites do not place any extra demand on the power grid. 

While the future is still unclear, there are many ways that oil and gas companies will adopt hydrogen into the mix, and we think that the retail solution might just be one of the critical areas of investigation.

Who knows, one day, filling up our hydrogen cars at the gas station might be commonplace.