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Green cars get a hydrogen 'lift'

26 September 2011

With concerns over electric vehicle battery costs and performance (let alone the price of the drivetrain) continuing to depress the electric vehicle market, it is not surprising to see that other viable green alternative - the hydrogen fuelled vehicle - make the headlines again after a period of relative quiet. The UK’s first 'open access' hydrogen vehicle refuelling station is now officially open for business at Honda’s manufacturing facility in Swindon. Built and operated by BOC, the Swindon venture is the result of a partnership between Honda, BOC and Forward Swindon, and is open to anyone developing or using hydrogen-powered vehicles, filling at both the 350bar and 700bar standard pressures.

The station aims to encourage the development of both hydrogen-powered vehicles – such as Honda's FCX Clarity – and the refuelling infrastructure needed to support them. The developers are confident that the fully operational, commercial-scale station using tested technology can be replicated across the country and so create the essential network necessary for the widespread uptake of hydrogen-powered transport. Meanwhile, the UK's first underground liquid hydrogen refuelling station near Hornchurch in Essex, currently supplying three hydrogen fuel cell powered buses plying London's RV1 route between Covent Garden and Tower Gateway, has been in operation for a while now.

Only last year, hydrogen came top of a poll by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Formula Student (FS) team on future fuels. The FS ‘Future Fuels’ survey showed ‘hydrogen’ coming top with 34% of the votes, ‘electricity’ coming in a close second at 29%, and just 17% voting for ‘fossil fuels’. With the UK’s transport sector accounting for almost 24% of the nation’s CO2 emissions, of which 80% is from road vehicles, alternative fuels will have to be adopted if the UK is to meet its targets to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 80% of its 1990 levels by 2050.

Hydrogen powered cars have the potential to produce zero emissions - depending on its source, of course - with vehicles being lightweight and compact. However, providing low-cost, efficient hydrogen storage and distribution is a large concern. Many car manufacturers have adopted electricity as an alternative energy source which is 100% emission free but along with infrastructure, the current weight, size and cost of electric batteries continues to pose a challenge.

Almost three years ago to the day at the Millbrook Proving Ground, Revolve Technologies (formerly Roush Technologies) unveiled another approach to the exploitation of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel with its bi-fuel internal combustion engine (H2ICE) conversion technology. The 2.3-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine of a Ford Transit-based vehicle had been modified to operate using compressed hydrogen gas fuel, though it was also able to operate from its existing petrol fuelled system without any adverse effects. Revolve simply added a belt-driven supercharger with intercooler to provide additional combustion air under pressure when the fuel mode switch was selected to hydrogen only. The engine retained its conventional spark ignition system.

The hydrogen fuel in this converted Transit van is stored in three tanks, underslung below the vehicle floor. The installation provides a usable storage capacity for 4.5kg of hydrogen at 350bar and gives an estimated range between 95 miles for the urban cycle and 135 miles for open highway running. Additional capacity can be added if required. Importantly, the location and configuration of the tanks allows the retention of the volume and load height of the base vehicle – with no intrusion or interference within the load space.

Revolve is also working with Sheffield based energy storage and clean fuel company, ITM Power to promote the use of new technology that will enable hydrogen powered vehicle operators to generate their own fuel. Earlier this year ITM announced the sale of its first small-scale bespoke hydrogen production system to the University of Glamorgan (UoG). The proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyser system can supply around 4kg of hydrogen per day, based on the Company’s HFuel product platform, and has been integrated with UoG’s existing hydrogen dispensing system at the latter's Renewable Hydrogen Research and Development Centre, located at Baglan Energy Park in South Wales.

Meanwhile, over in France, hydrogen fuelled transport has not necessarily got its wheels on terra firma. Lisa Airplanes’ Hy-Bird two-seater recreational craft, for example, is a hybrid aircraft that depends on two renewable sources for its propulsion system: solar energy from photovoltaic cells mounted on the wing and horizontal tail surfaces (stored in lithium-polymer batteries) and electricity produced by PEM type hydrogen fuel cells.

The hydrogen, compressed and contained in onboard lightweight tanks, is derived from a water electrolysis process, powered by renewable resources. The main role of the batteries is to complement the power of the fuel cells for all phases, including takeoff, climb and cruising at peak power. The fuel cells delivers continuous power corresponding to that required for flight at cruising altitude - something between 15 and 20kW.

According to researchers at Boeing, PEM fuel cell technology could potentially power small manned and unmanned air vehicles while, over the longer term, solid oxide fuel cells might be applied to secondary power-generating systems, such as auxiliary power units for large commercial aircraft. However, while the company does not envisage fuel cells providing primary power for large passenger aircraft, it has pledged to continue to investigate their potential, as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources that improve environmental performance.

Testing the UK IP system
The Government has called for evidence on how the UK intellectual property system can better support our globally successful design industry. At an event hosted by the Design Council last week, Baroness Wilcox urged the UK’s design community to gather information and data on what makes our design industry tick and what the government can do to support innovation and growth.

The perceived lack of evidence was highlighted by Professor Ian Hargreaves in his review of Intellectual Property and Growth, and in its response, the government committed to gaining a better understanding of whether the design rights system in the UK is geared to the needs of business. A supporting online questionnaire/survey aimed at business is available via the Intellectual Property Office website.

At the same event, Baroness Wilcox announced the publication of the first phase of research into the use of design rights in the UK. The research shows that the most intensive spenders on design in the UK are business services, manufacturing and construction sectors. Relative to other countries in Europe the UK spends significantly on design related products and services; but there is very low awareness of design rights. These reports are also available via the IPO website here.

Les Hunt


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