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UK slow to react to hydrogen possibilities

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As we watch in horror as petrol and diesel prices rise towards £2 per litre, we begin to see the urgent need for new fuels.

Hydrogen is one option. And interestingly, hydro-gen was one of the first fuels to be tested in the original Otto combustion engines 150 years ago.

It has the benefits of light weight, zero emissions and high efficiency when used in the right systems.

The downsides are its high volume, need for a pressurised cylinder and lack of availability on
the forecourt. In these areas, hydrogen resembles CNG (compressed natural gas).

At the moment, in Europe, Japan and the USA, hydrogen stations are being installed to allow consumers to fill their new vehicles with hydrogen, the cleanest and most efficient fuel.

The California hydrogen highway has 28 with plans for more than 100 stations, Japan is install-ing 100 and there are dozens now across Germany and Scandinavia.

The UK has been slower with its investments. The first went in during 2008 at the University of Birmingham and now there are four in the Midlands. London has one and is planning several more for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Altogether, there are seven in Britain at present, but this number should more than double by 2015.

The need is for many more hydrogen cars and buses to make use of this infrastructure. Birming-ham had five Microcabs from 2008, with eight more delivered in 2011. London is planning 20 for 2012. Companies say they will make hundreds for demonstration and testing in 2012.

Significant roll-out from the main vehicle manufacturers should occur in 2015 with a substantial market by 2020.
In reality, hydrogen has been largely invisible because it is used in the chemical industry as both a fuel and a feedstock for plastics and other products. Almost 3% of our total fuel use is hydrogen, but we rarely observe it because it is in Teesside or Merseyside in the petro-chemical plants.

But the time is now approaching when we will all have to opportunity to fill our cars with this wonderfully clean and efficient fuel.

Author: Prof Kevin Kendall, University of Birmingham

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  • FleetEnergyWatcher - 31/03/2011 21:49

    It is easy to make hydrogen sound wonderful - but is it really? It's a fossil fuel: made commercially from natural gas or by electrolysing water with electricity generated from coal. Both processes require large energy inputs. Hydrogen isn't an energy source, it is only a carrier. In other words, society expends more energy getting power to a car's wheels by going down the hydrogen route than it would if it ran the car directly on natural gas. Hydrogen's green credentials are quite marginal, too. Joseph J. Romm, an expert on energy and advanced vehicles, argues that the hydrogen delivery chain emits more CO2 than running vehicles on petrol or diesel. The fact is that oil is the densest, cheapest, most useable vehicle fuel. When the price of oil goes up, so do the prices of the alternatives, which are all more expensive to begin with. There is no cheap, clean new 'saviour' fuel on the horizon. Fleets will have to sink or swim with petrol and diesel for at least the next 10 years, after which it will be Hobson's choice: every fuel option and new vehicle technology will be very costly compared to today. Businesses whose strategy is to muddle along until the kind of bright new future promised by Professor Kendal comes along probably won't be around to see (it in the unlikely event that it ever arrives).

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