Are hydrogen-powered cars the future?
Last year I had the pleasure of driving around London in a hydrogen-powered Hyundai ix35, one of the first mass-production hydrogen cars to hit the market. Hyundai was photographing every single street in London to build a picture of the city that could only be rivalled by local taxi drivers. To acquire this cabbie’s knowledge, a driving event took place over 50 days with the Hyundai tackling every street in a six-mile radius around central London.
With the challenge of driving a left-hand-drive car down narrow streets aside, the ix35 was a pleasure to drive, as silent and smooth as an electric car but with a much greater range. The official figures say the ix35 will do 369miles on one tank, if driven carefully, but another stunt from the company that saw one of these cars drive continuously around the M25 for 6,096 miles. During this event, the hydrogen-powered car achieved more than 400 miles to a tank.
That’s double the amount most electric cars will do on a single charge. Of course, the difference is that it’s now quite easy to find an electric charging station whereas hydrogen filling stations are few and far between and this could be what's holding back the sale of these green vehicles.
At the moment, the UK has a handful of hydrogen filling stations, most of which are in London with the other scattered along main trunk roads. The 400-mile range of the ix35 means that most of these are reachable if you did need to do a long distance but there’s always the chance that one might be out of action, leaving you stranded.
Hydrogen London is leading the push to deliver new filling stations in the city with its London Hydrogen Network Expension (LHNE) project. New filling stations started popping up in 2015 and the organisation is keen to have London lead the way on infrastructure.
Other projects have been developed to build the hydrogen infrastructure in other parts of the country. Birmingham university has created the Midlands Hydrogen Ring, which will serve the area around the city. It hopes to have 20 filling stations by 2020.
Not everyone is getting behind hydrogen-powered cars. Wolfgang Ziebart, technical design director at Jaguar Land Rover, said in an interview with International Business Times: "Hydrogen doesn't make sense. It is a complete nonsense. The well-to-wheel relationship is a disaster in hydrogen." He went on to say that hydrogen cars currently on sale, such as the £66,000 Toyota Mirai, are not really hydrogen powered, because they use the fuel cell to create electricity, which then drives the car.
One of the biggest barriers to this alternative fuel is storing the hydrogen. As it’s 14-times lighter than air, it can easily escape containment. This has been addressed by vehicle makers by combining the hydrogen with various metal alloys to create hydrides, this means that heat has to be applied to allow the metal to release its hydrogen load.
A new storage method using an experimental material known as activated carbon shows promise of storing ever greater volumes of hydrogen in smaller spaces. This is even more efficient than metal hydrides as a given volume of activated carbon can safely store 2.4 times the amount of hydrogen as the same volume of compressed gas stored at 3,000 PSI. Other ways of storing hydrogen, such as pressurized glass microspheres and new carbon materials called Bucky balls and whisker scrolls are also being studied and tested, in hopes of even further increasing the volume of hydrogen stored while increasing safety.
Hydrogen still makes people think back to the Hindenburg disaster and there’s no denying that improperly handled hydrogen can be dangerous. It can combust with one-tenth the energy of gasoline but despite this, the cars are said to be safer than those with internal combustion engines.
Cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell aren’t little Hindenburgs just waiting to explode. Because the gas is so light, any puncture or damage to the fuel cell would mean the hydrogen would just escape into the air. It's unlikely it would be sitting around long enough to combust in the event of an accident. This is different to petrol or diesel powered vehicles where a punctured fuel tank would lead to fuel pooling beneath the car.
Today's hydrogen fuel tanks are also made from highly durable carbon fibre, the strength is assessed not only in crash tests but also in trials that involves bullets being fired at the tanks. Toyota’s Mirai has other safeguards, including structural integrity to protect the tanks and electronic systems that are programmed to shut down any hydrogen lines in the car if a leak is detected.
Many car manufacturers are planning for a hydrogen future but some, such as Jaguar Land Rover, are sticking solidly by their electric vehicle plans. There’s no doubt hydrogen is going to play a part in the future of transportation but it’s going to have to combat against an already established and rapidly growing electric vehicle market.
As was the case with electric cars a few years ago, the infrastructure needs to grow before mass-produced hydrogen vehicles are going to be seen regularly on our roads.
All but two UK regions failing on school energy efficiency
Most schools are still "treading water" on implementing energy efficient technology, according to new analysis of Government data from eLight.
Yorkshire & the Humber and the North East are the only regions where schools have collectively reduced how much they spend on energy per pupil, cutting expenditure by 4.4% and 0.9% respectively. Every other region of England increased its average energy expenditure per pupil, with schools in Inner London doing so by as much as 23.5%.
According to The Carbon Trust, energy bills in UK schools amount to £543 million per year, with 50% of a school’s total electricity cost being lighting. If every school in the UK implemented any type of energy efficient technology, over £100 million could be saved each year.
Harvey Sinclair, CEO of eEnergy, eLight’s parent company, said the figures demonstrate an uncomfortable truth for the education sector – namely that most schools are still treading water on the implementation of energy efficient technology. Energy efficiency could make a huge difference to meeting net zero ambitions, but most schools are still lagging behind.
“The solutions exist, but they are not being deployed fast enough," he said. "For example, we’ve made great progress in upgrading schools to energy-efficient LED lighting, but with 80% of schools yet to make the switch, there’s an enormous opportunity to make a collective reduction in carbon footprint and save a lot of money on energy bills. Our model means the entire project is financed, doesn’t require any upfront expenditure, and repayments are more than covered by the energy savings made."
He said while it has worked with over 300 schools, most are still far too slow to commit. "We are urging them to act with greater urgency because climate change won’t wait, and the need for action gets more pressing every year. The education sector has an important part to play in that and pupils around the country expect their schools to do so – there is still a huge job to be done."
North Yorkshire County Council is benefiting from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which has so far awarded nearly £1bn for energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation projects around the country, and Craven schools has reportedly made a successful £2m bid (click here).
The Department for Education has issued 13 tips for reducing energy and water use in schools.