Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UK's First Public Hydrogen Filling Station Opens.

Britain's first public hydrogen filling-station has opened in Swindon. It will be run by BOC (British Oxygen Company) who are the nation's biggest supplier of compressed gases. It is said that the station is an important step in a national scheme to make hydrogen vehicles a viable alternative to petrol-driven cars.

Swindon Borough Council's regeneration body, Forward Swindon, was awarded a £250,000 grant from the South West England Regional Development Agency in order to build the fuel station at Honda in Swindon.

Although there are practically no hydrogen-powered cars on British roads there is the murmur that hydrogen cars are the future of practically zero-emission motoring.

It is hoped that the scheme will encourage the manufacture of hydrogen-cars in Britain, which currently are made mostly in Japan.

Sounds great but where will the hydrogen come from? Practically all the world's hydrogen - used in the petrochemical industry and to make artificial nitrogen fertilizers via combining it with nitrogen in the Haber-Bosch process, is made by steam-reforming natural gas. CO2 is a by-product, and will need to be "stored" if the overall process is to be truly as clean and green as is claimed. Electrolysing water on a vast scale as a source of hydrogen using green-electricity e.g. from wind-power is still on the drawing board and there is the problem that the rare earth elements used increasingly in the magnets of wind-turbines are becoming relentlessly scarce and expensive.

True that hydrogen cars do not pollute as do petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles, but at a cost of £9.5 million for one car, the price will need to be brought-down vastly if this is to be a serious contender for alternative transport. There is the further issue that there is insufficient available platinum to fabricate more than a tiny fraction of the number of fuel cells required to replace oil-fuelled transportation on any significant scale.

In respect of all these limitations, H-transport really is a flash in the pan.

Related Reading.


Mark said...

In San Diego the local natural gas company will soon be opening a fueling station offering dimethyl ether, which of course will be made mostly from natural gas. I am not an expert on this subject but the press is saying that dme is similar to propane and easier to use than hydrogen or natural gas. That being said it seems to me that dme like hydrogen is facing a chicken or egg quandary. Will there be enough vehicles on the road to support more of these stations and will there be enough stations to support any sizeable number of dme vehicles?

I don't know if this is stunt by the Southern California Gas Company to show its green credentials or they hope to be the first to catch the dme wave. Who knows, maybe they are on to something. But it must be also pointed out that the Socal Gas Company has been known to throw money down rat holes and this could be another example of that. I guess you could say I am both intrigued yet suspicious of this move.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Mark,

dimethyl ether - interesting. In the sense of its relatively high boiling point -24 deg C cf. -42 for propane. It has a lower energy density of 32 MJ/kg cf. 50 MJ/kg when fully combusted.

I know that DME can be mixed 30:70 with LPG and used in diesel engines.

H2 is intended for use with fuel cells and the other fuels can be too, and is best handled as a high pressure gas rather than a VERY cold liquid.

It all seems to tie-in with the idea of a "methanol economy" since DME is made from methanol (which comes from natural gas - methane).

Probably DME could be used in vehicles that have been adapted to run on LPG, with a degree on engine-tuning, but to be honest it does seem a bit of a stunt.

Perhaps this might be regarded as a test-run for a longer-term strategy of running vehicles on DME derived from plentiful supplies of methane there are thought to be, as oil begins to decline.

That said, we are at best only buying ourselves ten years maybe, even if the huge new infrastructure necessary to turn methane into DME can be inaugurated in time. It's the old rate-of-conversion problem that seems to jigger us all the time!