Of late I have been thinking alot about a podcast I watched. Now I need to place this in context, so I will. Since choosing not to renew my contract at Liverpool so that I could concentrate on getting my academic career back on the correct track I have been in a sort of knowledge vacuum. My brain has responded to this by seeking out interesting people and podcasts online. This includes the fantastic RSC public lectures (sadly only the public lectures not all lectures appear to be streamed), Linux Outlaws (of course) and as of last week Transportevolved. I should say from the start that all the people involved in these projects are clearly very talented and very nice people. No I do mean that, even Fabsh (sorry too easy) who writes for The aitch online.

However a statement was made about hydrogen by one of the co-hosts of Transportevolved and it has stuck in my head. The statement which was on the lines of “hydrogen is a dead end” as there is no future in the “fuel cell”. This really annoyed me especially when coupled to the statements about running out of “gas” - petrol as we would say. It annoyed me because both arguments are one dimensional and I don’t think either are correct. Firstly “the people who run out of petrol will be the same who will run out of charge” is a rather sweeping generalisation. But I see why you would say it if you are defining a personality trait. Or if you are defining it in a bigger picture sense - “you are too scared to come to electric” but “it doesn’t matter because we will run out of fossil fuels - and therefore you will run out of gas” kinda thing. But that isn’t the argument being made about range is it? The argument is that if my car is running low I can nip to the petrol station refill in minutes and be on my way. It is a rubbish argument but it a correct one. You can not refill an electric car (yet) at the same speed of a fossil fuel one and get the equivalent mileage out the other side. But technically I could ride my peddle bike for much longer than you could drive your car - it would be slower but I could. We both would need to stop for food at some point and that is my fuel so there….

OK so it is a silly argument but what about the hydrogen fuel cell? Well before I do let me say I am completely biased here. I love hydrogen (H2) I think it is great. Let me tell you why:

  1. It is a ‘H’ or aitch as we say back home - that is cool - I should clarify it is cool because well it is the symbol glued to the forehead of Chris Barry when he plays Arnold Rimmer and anything to do with Red Dwarf by definition is cool.

  2. There is a lot of H2 kicking about and I mean a lot - it is the most abundant element in the universe which is again pretty cool.

  3. Hydrogen can readily be produced from the electrolysis of water.

  4. It is a system of storage with no “memory” and indefinite storage times (unlike a battery).

  5. Hydrogen can be stored more easily than electricity and has a very high energy per unit mass.

  6. When you burn hydrogen you get water which is what you started with and can convert it straight back into hydrogen again.

But what about the fuel cell. No I agree expensive and great in space shuttles but we don’t need them here on earth. What?

The answer is really, really, really simple. We can store hydrogen under pressure in a cylinder no one wants to but we can. We can also produce hydrogen from the electrolysis of water - splitting and storing hydrogen and oxygen (simple chemistry) we can use the oxygen replacing the current fractional distillation sources for a start. We have excess electrical production capacity in the terms of power stations who don’t like to turn off so rather than pump water up a hill why not produce hydrogen and store it?

OK so we have hydrogen what do we do with it if we are not putting it through a fuel cell. Erm, I just said burn it above. BURN IT? Yes burn it in a combustion engine like you burn petrol, diesel  LPG like we burnt coal gas during the war. Burn it. It is true when you do burn hydrogen in an internal combustion engine you get some NOx and possibly COx depending on the local environment as well as water. You get the NOx because it is a high temperature explosion. But there are already plenty of literature studies that have been peer-reviewed that show you can ironically by mixing water into the injection reduce the temperature and reduce the NOx levels. The COx is going to be the simple decomposition of the lubricating oils - you can’t do anything about that but it is a very, very, very small component and only an internal combustion engine issue.

Ok job done yes. No! Because you see just switching from fossil fuels to hydrogen isn’t the actual answer. The real answer is that you keep an internal combustion engine and couple that with battery technology and electric motors - just that the engine is hydrogen powered. This means you are no longer burning fossil fuels which is good. You now have the ability just like the diesel electric train to generate your own electricity to top up your cars, wagon, lorry, airplane  boat, or motorbike electricity when your battery starts to loose power and have effective a car that either produces CO2 whilst you are charging it or water if you are locally charging it. And the CO2 being created at the power station is not an issue because we can capture and scrub that at source which is a lot, lot, lot, lot easier than capturing it out the back of a billion cars.

So that is my answer to the problem. I want hydrogen I can have hydrogen I use it with a battery and electric motors I don’t burn hydrogen to drive my car I burn hydrogen to help keep my battery charged or to produce electricity to drive the electric motors. I do that because that is the most efficient way to do it. When I was six I asked my next door neighbour who is an electrician why it wasn’t possible to turn the prop-shaft in a car into a motor by placing magnetics and a coil around it. Then to activate the circuit as a method of braking or slowing down the car. I asked this because my Dad’s land rover had a prop-shaft handbrake and to me it was a logical extension of the concept. I had a dynamo on my bike it was simple - it was regenerative braking. So why can’t I have a hydrogen powered electric car? A “green” and I hate using that term - combustion vehicle?

If anyone at Honda, Ford, Renault, Nissan, Great Wall, GM, erm, Hyundai have just read this and slapped themselves in the face - it is fine I give you this idea. Please use it and go save the world.

STOP - what about refueling. Ok do I need to do the entire process? Well there are two ways of seeing the problem. Obviously I think people are going to start to get a bit freaked out having a hydrogen gas production facility in their garage. I don’t know why especially if you have solar panels you could do it for free. You can already get LPG at the pump. Yes it is a lot harder to liquefy hydrogen gas but not really a technical problem that has not been overcome  But hang-on we can make it from water. Hmm it is slow but is it very controllable only being generated whilst the redox circuit is running. So why not make it on board during regen braking? Or because you are not making hydrogen you sole fuel source it is your range extension you can afford to have a slower refill at the “petrol” station. Moving gas around isn’t that hard. You are after all NOT using the hydrogen to drive the wheels so you don’t need the demand that is required from a combustion engine doing the same job. You just need a constant supply when called for. Something you could readily do locally whilst driving. Then your fuel that you refill up with will be water. Creaky that is hard to deal with now isn’t it.