As the world’s energy requirements continue to grow, engineers and designers spanning all industrial sectors are looking for the ‘fuel of the future’. Of all the contenders, hydrogen has been making small waves, particularly in the automotive industry.
There are already hydro-fuel cars on the market, but there are limitations to their uses. The biggest being the ability to refuel while on the road. These cars have a longer range than electric cars, but with only around 10 fuelling stations in the UK to date, long journeys would require careful planning.
It’s not a fuel that will go away, if the Hyundai Motor Group’s latest announcement is anything to go by. In its FCEV Vision 2030 plan, it aims to boost the production of hydrogen fuel-cell systems to 700,000 units a year by 2030. Toyota hopes to sell 30,000 fuel-cell Mirais a year around the world by 2020.
Here in the UK, the team at Riversimple are working on the Rasa from their Welsh base. This experimental car uses a low-powered hydrogen fuel cell and a body made from lightweight composites. The prototype is thought to have a range of 300 miles with zero emissions. Public opinion has so far been positive.
More than cars
It’s not just in the consumer cars market where hydrogen power has been gaining momentum. Still in vehicle production, the Alstom Coradia iLint is the world’s first hydrogen-powered train, manufactured in Germany where it has entered commercial service (as of September 2018).
The European Marine Energy Centre Ltd, based in Orkney, Scotland, is very much at the forefront of innovation when it comes to hydrogen-based projects. It’s working on building a Hydrogen Territory in the Orkney Islands, as part of the EU’s Building Innovative Green Hydrogen systems in an Isolated Territory (BIG HIT) project.
The island uses wind and tidal generators to create energy, but due to its location in the stormy seas, there is often more energy created than the power grid can accept. Being able to harness this energy and store it reduces a reliance on fossil fuels. By splitting the collected water into hydrogen and oxygen, then storing the hydrogen as compressed gas, the energy can be used at a later date in fuel cells as power for vehicles and heating systems, for example.
The hydrogen advantage
Hydrogen is a clean energy source that can be produced from renewable energy or nuclear energy. From an economic point of view, it can be produced in volume within the UK, without relying on foreign imported oil. Hydrogen has natural advantages by being the lightest element, but also the highest energy content of any common fuel by weight. The only by-products of hydrogen fuel cells are pure water and heat.
Hydrogen is already the fuel of choice of the NASA space program. Not only can it deliver the required energy to power the shuttle or rocket, it also powers the electrical systems and produces pure water for drinking.
Over the next few years, we’re likely to see hydrogen being used in more experimental ways. It has the potential to become as important an energy carrier as electricity. Japan may have set its sights on being the world’s first ‘hydrogen society’, but it’s likely that other countries will follow suit.