Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/18/hydrogen_filling_stations/

Cow turds fuel Blighty's hydrogen filling station embrace

Birmingham Uni fills up on brown gas

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 18th April 2008 10:04 GMT

Britain is about to get a new wave of hydrogen filling stations, allowing those few organisations and individuals in possession of hydrogen vehicles to top them up.

According to the Times, "Britain's first hydrogen fuel station" opened yesterday. But, in fact, Blighty has previously had hydrogen stations - they just didn't stay open, being intended to support projects with closing dates.

Yesterday's hydrogen forecourt is at Birmingham University, which is doing a feasibility study on hydrogen transport using a fleet of five "Microcab" fuel-cell vehicles. There will also be stations in London from next year until 2013, supporting Mayor Ken Livingstone's 70-vehicle hydrogen trial fleet. The London government project will see both internal-combustion and fuel-cell hydrogen kit tried out, in buses, police vehicles, and other city applications.

The five-year London trial is to cost £22m, according to the Times. Air Products, the same company which has set up the "mobile fueller" equipment in Birmingham, will provide the capital's new hydrogen stations as well.

"We are extremely proud to provide the first hydrogen fuelling station to a UK university," said Air's Ian Williamson. "We have already installed 21 mobile fuellers and built more than 80 stations worldwide."

Seeking to address the safety worries often attendant on hydrogen, which is very flammable and potentially a serious explosion risk in enclosed garages, he added: "Over 50,000 vehicle fuellings have already safely taken place thanks to Air Products technology."

Normally, hydrogen is produced in industrial quantities by reforming natural gas - which involves massive CO2 emissions, making the use of hydrogen vehicles rather pointless. The idea is that in future one might make bulk hydrogen instead by cracking water electrically, a lovely clean process of itself.

Cow Patting toward a Browner Tomorrow

When asked where all the electricity would come from, hydrogen-car enthusiasts usually suggest solar or wind power. The idea that solar, wind, or tidal might be able to power the transport sector as well as delivering most of the ordinary electric supply is not usually seen as believable - even Greenpeace don't think this is feasible - so the hydrogen economy is often perceived as actually being a nuclear-powered economy.

This is not even to mention the electric-v-hydrogen argument. In this, the electric-car fanciers suggest that a hydrogen car is merely one which stores electric power: so why not just use an electric car?

Then the hydrogen lovers say they aren't happy to sit about charging up for hours every time they run out of juice etc etc, and so the merry day winds on.

The Birmingham Uni study, funded by various government and private bodies, is intended to help settle this kind of debate by generating data on the performance of fuel-cell cars. In the case of the Birmingham filling point, the hydrogen won't be made using natural gas, either. It will come from Basingstoke-based company Green Gases.

It says its hydrogen is produced by water electrolysis - and the electric power isn't nasty carbo-nuclear grid 'leccy. Rather, it's made by burning methane in a generator; and the methane comes from anaerobically digested cowpats.

One would get as many or more road miles out of the methane by simply burning it in a diesel*, so this ploy isn't exactly efficient. And it seems pretty much certain that running the future vehicle fleet of old Blighty on cowshit electricity - whether stored in the form of hydrogen or not - isn't a viable plan.

One thing's for sure. No matter what side of the debate you're on, this kind of convoluted green-tech manoeuvring is fascinating to watch. ®

Bootnote

*Combined-cycle gas turbine generators can achieve say 55 per cent thermal efficiency, to be sure, but Green Gases isn't using CCGT. And the hydrogen car itself is probably only 60 per cent efficient. So the cow gas is being turned into brake horsepower at something a good bit worse than 33 per cent efficiency. A modern diesel could easily beat this.

This hydrogen is perhaps a brown gas rather than a green one.