The by-products of hydrogen fuel cells are heat and water, which makes them far more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. As it has become more unacceptable to drive a car that emits carbon dioxide, governments and companies around the world have set up initiatives to create the right infrastructure and technologies to bring fuel cells into fruition.
However, progress has been slow, at least among the big companies. Smaller manufacturers and retailers are bubbling away and it seems it is the smaller fish that are bringing about the change. Humans Invent spoke to Ben Todd from Arcola Energy, who recently manufactured the UK’s first hydrogen-powered radio control boat, to find out what the future holds for the hydrogen fuel cell.
If you put electricity into water you can separate it into hydrogen and oxygen, for fuel cells it is exactly the opposite. You take hydrogen and oxygen, you combine them and create water and in the process you create electricity. It’s what you call an electro-chemical reaction, so it is a chemical reaction that also creates electricity. The principle is really simple and it has been around since the 19th century.
For the last 150 years people have been working out how to do it in a cheap, robust, durable and practical way. The principle is really simple but the devil is in the detail. There is this joke that fuel cells have been ten years in the commercialisation process for the last 50. But there really is a sense at the moment that material science has moved on enough and the business model has been developed sufficiently, that we can just about make it now.
Our approach is to start with the small stuff that you can get out of the door straightaway and get the experience from that, build the business model around it and then move onto the super-duper fuel cell powered planes, train and cars.
Yes, we are working on that kind of scale. The company we are working with, Horizon, who are based in Singapore, started by doing kids toys. It is a fiercely competitive market but they figured out a way of making fuel cells cheap enough that you could put them in a toy and knock out half a million of them which is more fuel cells that anyone else has sold put together. Once you can do that, you can think about moving onto to, say, a mobile phone charger and then move onto slightly larger portable devices and then in the UK we are starting to work on bicycles and move into the lightweight vehicles, like smart cars etc. We are not going to suddenly take a dirty big truck and make it hydrogen powered.
In the fuel cell industry you’ve had people making fuel cells, then consultants trying to get jobs installing fuel cells and then you’ve had end users trying to figure out what the hell to do with fuel cells. We on the other hand are interested in doing a one-stop shop. You turn up, you have a vague idea you want a fuel cell, we’ll guide you through understanding what fuel cells are and tell you how you might link it into a solar panel or a wind turbine etc and put the whole thing together and give a price. You then start to attract a huge number of inventors, tinkers and makers.
We gradually came up with the idea of a developer kit. This way we could give these people what they need in a package with instructions combined with a forum of other people who’ve probably had the same problem and empower loads of people around the world to get on with it and make stuff with fuel cells.
We are delivering our first automotive system next week. It is going to go into a vehicle in the UK for a trial. As soon as that works, which we think it probably will more or less straightaway, we will then get an order for another nine and we expect to ship about a hundred in the next 2-3 years. So it is small scale in the automotive industry but it is a damn sight more than has been done up until now.
It will be a while and I don’t think it will be one horse. You will have hybrids, pure battery and pure fuel cells. It will take a while before you get hydrogen fuel cells into bigger vehicles because of the cost implications of putting in this hydrogen infrastructure so we are interested in looking at the really small stuff. If the vehicles are small, you get an immediate benefit from making a lightweight vehicle anyway. Private transport causes all types of societal problems because it takes up lots of space etc. At the very least, let’s take away some of the space problems, let’s take away the pollutants in the air and give it a big boost in efficiency.
If you start from that, I think there is another growth model. If you talk to the big automotives they say 2015, in private they will probably say 2020. We are saying 2013 with a genuine delivery of useful things for people. So next year you will probably be able to get a hydrogen fuel cell powered car for not ridiculous amounts of money but that is completely different from saying that Honda, Toyota, Ford are going to switch 90 per cent to fuel cells, you are looking at 20 years for that to happen.
Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fueled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.