Northern Sweden is giving full-throttle to hydrogen | Polarjournal
A sort-of-zero-emissions vehicle (Photo: Volvo)

The lightest element appears to have a big future in the region’s heavy industry

For almost a hundred years now, Volvo, a Swedish carmaker, has used the ancient symbol for iron in its logo. The design, like the name itself, was chosen to convey a sense of movement, while also doing homage to iron, an element that Sweden’s underground is rich in, and which its economic wealth is built upon.

Increasingly, though, Volvo — and indeed Sweden itself — is looking to a different element as it seeks to wean its vehicles off fossil fuels. For now, hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, which provide power by converting hydrogen into electricity, remain less common than the battery-electric sort now forcing the internal-combustion engine off the road. But, ask any carmaker, and they will tell you that the future belongs to hydrogen: when it comes to range, output and cleanliness it beats electricity hands down.

In part, this is because batteries have to be charged when they are depleted. Fuel cells, on the other hand, use hydrogen to produce their own electricity, making them, in essence, miniature power plants. If the technology lives up to Volvo’s billing, it should offer drivers twice the range of internal-combustion engines. Farewell, range anxiety.

Similarly, the power used to charge a battery could just as well have been produced by burning coal as by a spinning wind turbine, wiping out any advantages they may have over internal-combustion engines. Hydrogen is not intrinsically clean either, since the hydrolysis process that is used to produce it requires electricity to split water molecules. Only if this power comes from renewable sources is the hydrogen considered “green” (other colours, including pink, blue and grey, are added as labels to give an indication of how much carbon pollution was generated in its production). 

Examples of potential hydrogen clusters in Sweden based on concrete plans and projects (Illustration: Fossilfrit Sverige)

Fortunately for Volvo, Sweden foresees the green variety of hydrogen as playing a key role for the country’s economy by the start of the next decade, when, it reckons, the costs of producing climate-friendly hydrogen will be on par with what it costs to make the dirtiest sorts. Much of the hydrogen Sweden produces is to be exported from a handful of regions. One of them is Gothenburg, in southern Sweden, where Volvo is headquartered, but the largest of these by far is shaping up to be in its northerly Norrbotten Län. There, the hydroelectric power that can give Swedish hydrogen a green sheen is plentiful. But, perhaps more important is that there are multiple business cases, such as steel-making and, ironically, battery-making, that will help spread any risk associated with building out the production and distribution infrastructure.

Preparations for this are already underway: in February, the port of Luleå announced an expansion that would quadruple its capacity, making it second-largest in port in Sweden and allowing it to export products fashioned using hydrogen, as well as the hydrogen itself, in the form of ammonia.

Volvo is getting in on this act in a big way. Literally. Earlier this month, it announced that its Volvo Trucks unit had successfully road-tested fuel-cell-electric lorries for the first time, putting them through their paces on public roads in northern Sweden. Testing vehicles in the North has long been standard procedure for carmakers looking to see how well their technology fares in extreme environments. Proximity, good infrastructure and the abundance of facilities has made northern Sweden a popular test site for European carmakers. Hydrogen, it appears, will be a key element in keeping that traffic going. 

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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