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FEATURE: These four UK hydrogen projects are leading a transport revolution

Joseph Flaig

The converted Piper M-class hydrogen plane from ZeroAvia flies over Cranfield Airport in September
The converted Piper M-class hydrogen plane from ZeroAvia flies over Cranfield Airport in September

For most of the 21st century, there has only been one viable alternative to fossil fuel transport in the minds of many people – electric vehicles.

Since the launch of the Tesla Roadster in 2008, there has been an explosion in the number and variety of electric cars available. They now account for more than one in 10 cars registered in the UK, and manufacturers are planning to flood the market with hundreds of new models in the coming years.

Electrification has long been an option for rail, and will be increasingly important as networks make the shift away from diesel ahead of ‘net zero’ in 2050.

Such is the hype around battery technology that researchers, start-ups and established companies around the world are also targeting the previously unthinkable – electric flight. In May, for example, MagniX and AeroTEC flew a retrofitted all-electric Cessna plane.

Battery electric transport is far from assured as a monolithic, fossil fuel-style transport sector dominator, however. Current technology lacks the extreme energy density required for airliner propulsion. On the road, new electric car models impress with longer and longer ranges, but there is increasing concern about the environmental impact of lithium mining.

Electrification will no doubt play a major part in the future transport system, but it will work alongside another promising propulsion technology – hydrogen fuel cells. Long seen as playing second fiddle when it comes to green transport, hydrogen has featured heavily in a flurry of exciting projects this year. Encouragingly, many of them are based in the UK.

Here are four UK-based hydrogen projects that could have a long and lasting impact.

The ‘momentous’ flight

“Arguably, this is as big a moment in aerospace as any in the last 75 years, comparable with the first flight of the jet engine,” said Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University, after what he called a “momentous” first flight of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered passenger aircraft last month.

The converted Piper M-class six-seater from ZeroAvia flew for eight minutes above the university’s airport in Bedfordshire, powered by hydrogen the entire time. The aircraft’s 800V powertrain propelled the aircraft to 305m and a top speed of 185km/h during the flight, an important first step for the UK’s hydrogen aerospace aspirations.

Double-decker hydrogen

Another world first was achieved in the UK last week, as Northern Irish bus manufacturer Wrightbus launched the first ever hydrogen double-decker in Aberdeen. A fleet of 15 will serve the city, one of several receiving funding from the European Union’s Jive project.

The buses are reportedly as efficient as electric equivalents, refuelling in less than 10 minutes and offering greater range. As with other forms of hydrogen transport, water is the only emission from the vehicles – a dramatic and hugely promising improvement on fossil-fuelled public transport, which contributes to urban air pollution.

“These buses represent much more than Aberdeen striving to reach a clean air, zero-carbon future,” said Wrightbus owner Jo Bamford. “They represent the start of what could be a world-leading hydrogen economy here in Scotland, which will bring mwith it multi-million-pound investments and tens of thousands of jobs.”

Hydrogen gets on track

The Coradia iLint hydrogen powered train from Alstom might already be in service in Germany and Austria, but the UK is following closely behind in its hydrogen rail ambitions.

A hydrogen powered train ran on British mainline for the first time ever last month, after years of development from train leasing company Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham. Known as the Hydroflex, the train uses hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, water and heat. The technology could also be used to retrofit existing trains from 2023, offering a potentially significant route to Network Rail’s net-zero target.

The green ferry

Hydrogen transport could also be taking to the waves thanks to a new project developing hydrogen-powered passenger ferries.

According to the BBC, Plymouth firm Patriot Yachts is developing two ferries which use hydrogen alongside solar panels and wind turbines. The boats will travel between Bristol and Cardiff, carrying about 100 people.

While the four projects are still at relatively early stages, there is increasing momentum behind plans for a nationwide hydrogen strategy. Projects such as Gigastack in the Humber plan to use renewable energy to generate ‘green’ hydrogen through electrolysis, providing an ideal storage solution for variable wind power – and, perhaps, fuel for new hydrogen vehicles.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently told Professional Engineering that the government plans to publish a hydrogen strategy ahead of COP26, in early 2021.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 


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