Hallelujah (yet again) for hydrogen

2 July 2011

Worldwide industrial exploitation is foreseen

You may be relieved to know that this fuel cell tale I am going to tell you is not (necessarily) just another instalment in the serial history of electric motoring’s greatest long-term high-tech disappointment to date. It is more far-reaching, and should breathe fresh hope into every surviving, maybe despairing, enthusiast for polymath William Grove’s 1839 invention.

The Carbon Trust, an organisation brought into being by the UK government some years ago to help stem allegedly demi-devilish climate-changing emission of CO2 by the burning of carbon (an otherwise seemingly demi-divine element), is now contributing to the development of a new fuel cell by participants including British, Belgian and Japanese interests. According to a Financial Times report the funders have among their ambitions a ‘mass market car with zero emissions at the tailpipe’.

Teasingly, the newspaper item begins with a claim that the new technology could ‘cut the cost of hydrogen powered cars’ but ignores the hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine. However, the rest of the story dwells reassuringly on the hydrogen fuel cell: and a strictly hydrogen fuel cell at that: for the novelty – perhaps to surprise in some quarters – does not lie in the choice of fuel.

The winning innovation is still a chemical one but in this cell it comes from the perhaps glamour-starved work of catalyst researchers. The heroes in this case have combined what they call commodity chemicals into something so much cheaper than the traditional platinum that it puts a completely fresh complexion on fuel cell economics.

The backers of the project apparently expect a global market for small electric cars, and set its value at about £180m by 2050. I quite understand the enthusiasm of the money men but for me the intriguing bit of the story is that the development began with stationary generating plant in mind, not automotive traction. The application to vehicular transport will absorb only a part of the new funding that is being attracted.

The first miniature generating installation is scheduled to take place this year in a British plant run by the Belgian chemical company Solvay. Worldwide industrial exploitation is foreseen to follow.

Meanwhile the vehicular arm is pushing ahead with all speed. Various carmakers have been named. Germany in Europe and California in the USA are political entities that have already reportedly promised a network of filling stations, but I have no idea what physical state of hydrogen may be on offer, there or anywhere on the still imaginary roadmap of the hydrogen economy. And, if it ever does happen, its prime movers could yet be heat engines as well as electrochemical cells.

How to remedy some electrical blessings

Some of you may have tired of the joke perpetrated by electric car makers who fit engine-noise simulators to their (otherwise blessedly silent) electric cars. Human psychology being what it is, there are people who regret the silence as a passion killer. Let me try to revive the amusement of at least a few of my tired readers.

I learn from The New York Times that certain net-zero-energy office accommodation in Golden, Colorado, functions in tune with that quirky human psychology. (Zero-net-energy buildings, by the way, are the ones designed to minimise, and ideally nullify, their ‘artificial’ energy* demand by, eg, relying on thermal insulation rather than space heating, and exploiting solar radiation – using architectural cunning – for light as well as heat.) The NYT points out that, in the creature-comfort-providing (and otherwise blessedly silent) office accommodation, there is a background of simulated air-conditioning noise to keep the (otherwise unconvinced) toilers happy.

I draw my own share of happiness from the thought that the required psychological ‘remedy’, as in the case of the quiet electric car, is administered electrically.**

*The word ‘artificial’ here draws the same sort of distinction as is intended when we call electric light ‘artificial’, ie not ‘natural’ as sunlight is.

**See also MPS, March 2010, ‘Electric maladies attract electric remedies’, p40; May 2010, ‘Pro bono publico’, p65; and January 2011, ‘Contra bono publico’, p81.

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