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Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) Demo Kit, powered by electricity generated from hydrogen!

What is it?

Forget blimps and popping test tubes – this isn’t your grandmother’s hydrogen power! These car kits generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, and releasing only water as a by-product – no dirty particulates or dubious gases. 

It’s why this technology has been adopted by Transport for London (TfL) who are investing in world-first hydrogen-powered double decker buses to reduce city centre emissions.

Why?

Half of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and particulate matter comes from transport, according to TfL. These pollutants exacerbate chronic illnesses and damage lung development, which is particularly damaging for children.

With the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission zone (ULEV) in April 2019, and 12 new hybrid/no-emission bus routes, TfL predicts that NOx emissions can be reduced by 45% in just 2 years.

The Hydrogen FCEV Demo Kits help to demystify this technology, as well as explain and raise questions around a future hydrogen economy in the UK.

The Science

Remember those pesky REDOX (Reduction and Oxidation) questions? Hold onto your lab specs, this is going to get technical!

Inside of a fuel cell, the hydrogen passes over an anode (the negative electrode), splitting the molecule into electrons and protons. This is called oxidation. Next there is a membrane, which only allows the protons to pass through to the other side, without allowing electrons through.

So what happens to the electrons? They are directed around an electrical circuit and made to perform work – aka electricity!

Simultaneously, at the cathode (the positive electrode), oxygen is reduced. There is now a stew of protons and oxide ions (oxygen with extra electrons), which recombine together to produce… H2O – water!

“You can actually see movement being created (electricity powering a motor) without any emissions of CO2, particulates, hydrocarbons or NOx/SOx gases. This is super clean at point of use!” – Josh Bailey

How could this fit into a renewable energy future?

So far, we’ve only touched on the benefits of hydrogen fuel cells in eliminating NOx and particulates in producing electricity for vehicles.

But hydrogen has a place in a renewable energy future, as a means to store energy created when there is surplus wind, solar or other renewable energy.

It is able to offer this due to hydrogen’s ability to be created simply by using electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases – in the exact opposite of the process outlined above.

The process is not highly energy efficient – it requires about twice as much energy to split the hydrogen and oxygen than is outputted when they are recombined in a fuel cell – but the ability to store energy that is otherwise completely wasted, and then harness it when required is the key benefit. 

This means that when the production of electricity from solar or wind is greater than demand, the energy can be redirected into producing hydrogen and stored. Then at night, or on a still day, when demand is greater than production, the hydrogen can be used to create energy to fill in this deficit –  making it a means to smooth out the peaks and troughs of energy demand.

So why are we still waiting?

As always, the subtle dance between market forces is likely to slow the widespread proliferation of hydrogen fuel cells. Those working in the industry, and who tout its environmental benefits, would like to see this sped up, while critics can point out how such adoption would spread out and redirect efforts and investment from other promising technologies – such as electric vehicles.

However, like many emerging technologies, it faces a difficult dilemma – should investment be made first into the infrastructure required to support the technology, or should commercial adoption lead the way before widespread investment by business and government.

Conclusion

The future of hydrogen looks promising as societies transition away from fossil-based fuels and technologies, as both a means of capturing excess energy from wind or solar.

With its inclusion in governmental transportation networks, as well as commercial development for the general public (learn about Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai here), there certainly seems to be a plausible place for hydrogen in the future of our energy economy.

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