UK chemicals multinational to build hydrogen 'gigafactory'

Johnson Matthey receives government backing to scale-up fuel cell production

UK chemicals multinational Johnson Matthey is set to build a £80 million ($96 million) "gigafactory" in southern England to produce hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysers.

The facility, to be built near Royston in Hertfordshire, will be designed to manufacture 3GW of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell components annually for hydrogen vehicles and is supported by the UK government.

According to industry forecasts from the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), the UK will need 14GW of fuel cell stack production and 400,000 high-pressure carbon fiber tanks annually to meet vehicle production demands by 2035. The market expects that there could be as many as three million fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) globally by 2030.

The facility at Royston will deploy state-of-the-art manufacturing processes to scale up the production of fuel cell components to meet customer demand, said Johnson Matthey. The site could be expanded in the future, almost tripling potential capacity by using the decommissioned Clean Air production facility to produce both fuel cell and green hydrogen components.

CEO Liam Condon said: "The fuel cell market has now reached a pivotal moment with the increasing urgency to decarbonize transportation and today marks the next step of the journey to a low-carbon future in the UK. We're delighted to be playing a key role in driving it forward."

The facility would not only add to the UK's growing electric vehicle supply chain, but it will also help secure hundreds of highly skilled jobs, according to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

"This investment, backed by government, is a major vote of confidence from Johnson Matthey in the UK," he said.

Ian Constance, chief executive of the APC, said: "We already have 15 percent of the fuel cell value chain radiating from UK businesses but this could be as much as 65 percent just by expanding on current strengths in electrochemistry and coatings or using our automotive capability to volume manufacture components. Johnson Matthey, a world-leader in hydrogen technology, have seen this opportunity and I'm delighted they have chosen the UK to grow this capability."

Hydrogen fuel cells are particularly apt for road freight as they offer fast refueling and long range, a weakness in battery power as an alternative to internal combustion engines. Like battery-powered vehicles, they produce no roadside emissions.

But there is still the problem of building the infrastructure to support fuel cell replenishment in enough locations to make the system practical. There are only around 15 public hydrogen fuel stations in the United Kingdom.

Questions persist about the sustainability of the hydrogen supply chain too. Around 96 percent of industry hydrogen comes directly from fossil fuels. Not only does the process of extracting hydrogen release CO2, but it also often relies on carbon energy sources – creating a double impact on emissions. In some cases, CO2 released in the process can be captured and stored, offering so-called "blue hydrogen."

But to create hydrogen without releasing CO2 at all, you need renewable electricity and electrolysis – "green hydrogen," and there isn't yet much of it about. There's no easy path to scaling electrolysis and making it cheaper, but there's been incremental progress.

Researchers in Spain have demonstrated a technique involving microwave radiation and chemical doping which could help overcome the immense capital costs of scaling hydrogen production. In Sweden, a project is working on colocating wind farms and hydrogen production to produce up to 240 tons of H2 per day.

As it launched its green hydrogen strategy in August last year, the UK government claimed the nation's hydrogen economy could be worth £900 million ($1.08 billion) by 2030, potentially £13 billion ($15.6 billion) by 2050. Experts said green hydrogen was in the process of transitioning from a "shed-based industry" to a highly automated one. ®

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