Richard Priestley – Transport beyond fossil fuels

Many countries are now setting themselves the goal of moving from petrol and diesel powered transportation systems to very much cleaner technologies. The UK, like many countries has set itself the goal of banning sales of new fossil fuelled vehicles by 2040. Norway plans to do so by 2025. Many people still don’t seem to realize that we already have most of the technologies we’ll need to run a modern global economy purely on renewable forms of energy. Renewably generated electricity, supplied via the grid, via batteries or via hydrogen fuel cells will be the basis of most methods of transport.

For over a hundred years trains and trams have used electricity via either overhead cables or live rails. There is a strong case to keep electrifying railway lines. An emerging alternative, particularly suitable for quiet rural railway lines, where the high cost of electrification might not be justified, are hydrogen fuel cell trains. Alstom is already marketing the Coradia iLint, and Siemens are now partnering with Ballard to make something similar. There are lots of advantages to getting people and freight off the roads and on to rails. Steel wheels on steel rails generate much less friction than rubber tyres on tarmac, meaning greater energy efficiency and less pollution. The longer thinner shape of trains means less air resistance, again aiding efficiency.

We will of course still need buses, trucks and cars. There are many possible fuel options. Oslo has a fleet of 135 buses powered on biomethane made from food waste and sewage. I’ve blogged about methanol fuel cells, and a whole range of innovative and experimental ships, planes, and solar panel clad roads and cars, which are all promising but not yet in common usage. Battery electric vehicles are getting massive media coverage due to Elon Musk and Tesla, and are beginning to sell in large numbers. Last year in Norway over half of all new cars sold were either battery electric or petrol/electric hybrids, but sadly in most other countries the proportion is very much smaller. In terms of volume of sales, China is a long way ahead of any other market for battery electric or hybrid cars and buses.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the other main technology to be moving from the experimental stage to the mass production stage. (earlier blogs from me in 2015 and 2017) The Scottish government has recently helped Aberdeen double its fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses from ten to twenty. Cologne in Germany has just ordered thirty, and dozens of cities are ordering a few. Ballard, the Canadian hydrogen fuel cell specialist has now teamed up with some Chinese companies to build a fleet of 500 hydrogen fuel cell light trucks and the refuelling infrastructure to support their roll out in Shanghai. Meanwhile the Nikola company has secured 8,000 pre-orders for its huge hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and will start production next year in Arizona. At the other end of the spectrum is Riversimple, who are due to build their first twenty tiny hydrogen fuel cell cars later this year, and which our local car club may be in a position to trial. Exciting times!

The days of petrol and diesel are numbered. It is too early to say which technology will dominate in the post fossil fuel economy. Both hydrogen and batteries are in essence ways of storing surplus wind and solar electricity and it is this aspect of how best to store energy cheaply and at vast scale which may be the main determinate of which fuel is used where. There will undoubtedly be a role for many technologies in various settings. I’ll explore more on this next week.


  1. Hydrogen is plentiful, in fact it’s everywhere, but I have read somewhere, that lithium: the main battery type most popular now, is much less abundant, how long is this going to last?

    1. True hydrogen is abundant and using electrolysis surplus renewable electricity can be converted to hydrogen. This is already happening and growing quite quickly. Lithium is more plentiful than was envisaged a few years back. ( see separate comment below). Lithium batteries have some end of use recycleability issues.

      Lithium batteries and hydrogen are both useful ways to store energy. We need both. They each have different advantages and uses.

  2. Roger,

    There’s not a simple answer to your question about Lithium. It’s one of those issues where the term “it depends” applies. How much more Li is found, how much more efficient battery manufacture becomes, and how much can be recovered from re-cycling. Geopolitics will play a role as well. Not all Li reserves are necesarily going to be easily accessible.

    A really good source of information on Lithium, other metals and Rare Earth Elements considered vital for our transition to renewable energy has just been published by Carbon Brief

    Here’s a few extracts:

    This low-carbon future would see strong demand for a wide range of base and precious metals, the World Bank report said. Alongside the usual suspects of cobalt, lithium and REEs, this includes aluminum, silver, steel, nickel, lead and zinc. The report said:

    “It would be reasonable to expect that all low-carbon energy systems are more likely than not to be more metal intensive than high-carbon systems. In fact, all literature examining material and metals implications for supplying clean technologies agree strongly that building these technologies will result in considerably more material-intensive demand than would traditional fossil fuel mechanisms.”

    It is impossible to pin down the balance of technologies – and, thus, metals – which will be used over the next 30 years. But some analysts have warned that there could be a shortage of lithium and cobalt as the use of lithium-ion batteries in energy storage and EVs increases. There are also fears over a “boom and bust” cycle developing for REEs, such as neodymium.


    For lithium, around 43kt were produced in 2017, according to the USGS, with 16,000kt of reserves. This means extraction at its current rate could continue for 372 years with current reserves.
    Lithium demand is also expected to increase rapidly, however, driven by its use in batteries. Deutsche Bank thinks electric vehicles, electric bikes and energy storage will together account for 58% of lithium demand in 2025, up from 15% in 2015. Goldman Sachs expects total demand to quadruple by 2025.

    Demand for lithium is relatively new, as is major exploration, and production has risen by 70% over the past 10 years. Reserves are also rising, increasing from 4,100kt in 2007 to 16,000kt in 2017. Identified resources have also risen from around 14,000kt in 2007 to 53,000kt in 2017. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) has found lithium supply for batteries is “just not an issue”.


    The concentration of cobalt in the DRC has contributed to making it a resource of key concern to electric car manufacturers in recent years. As well as its high political instability, around a fifth of the DRC’s cobalt is drawn out by artisanal miners working with their hands, with documented cases of children doing this work. Indeed, schemes to trace “ethical cobalt” are emerging, while the Financial Times has reported some buyers paying premium prices for sustainable and traceable metal supplies.

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