THE SUNDAY TIMES (UK): Fuel of the future is just past Woolies: Britain’s first filling station for hydrogen, the new ‘wonder alternative’ to petrol, is about to open, writes Emma Smith of The Sunday Times: “In Britain, Shell is going head to head with BP with its own plans for a chain of hydrogen filling stations. “We would hope to move quickly from isolated projects to building up the first network of hydrogen filling stations, to serve one large urban area, perhaps in London, Birmingham or Manchester by 2007,” says Jeremy Bentham, who runs Shell’s hydrogen division.” (ShellNews.net) 6 March 05
On a grey strip of dual carriageway alongside the unremarkable town of Hornchurch, Essex, are the unlikely beginnings of a green revolution. Follow the road out of town, past a Woolworths and a Wimpy, onto the A127, and, behind a line of makeshift wire fencing, Britain’s first hydrogen filling station is almost ready for business.
It might not look much but on this muddy spot, BP, the world’s third largest oil company, is taking the first small steps towards an environmentally friendly, petrol-free future.
Hydrogen is increasingly being billed as the environmental wonder fuel of the future and the motor industry’s catch-all solution to toxic fumes, acid rain, climate change and dwindling oil reserves. Like the alchemist’s dream, a plentiful substance — water — can be turned into a virtually inexhaustible supply of fuel. Public and private money is being poured into research and development.
The filling station will open next month. Initially it will service three £1m prototype hydrogen-powered buses used by Transport for London. The first production hydrogen-fuelled car could follow in less than two years.
“It is the first and only hydrogen station currently in construction in the UK,” says Carol Battershell, BP’s director of alternative fuels. “We have the nozzles there for it to fuel either cars or buses and there is scope to expand.”
Already BMW is putting the finishing touches to a hydrogen-fuelled version of its 7-series saloon and prototype hydrogen cars are being tested at the company’s research centre in Munich. “We have several working models and the first production cars could be ready within two years,” says Daniel Kammerer, a spokesman for BMW. “All we need now is some fine tuning of parts and the build-up of infrastructure.”
The cars will use a conventional internal combustion engine but be able to burn either petrol or liquefied hydrogen. According to Kammerer, the driver will not notice any change in performance between the fuels. He concedes that the end price of the hydrogen 7-series will outstrip the petrol version, at least in the first year, but it will be affordable.
“It will not be possible to make it the same price in the first instance, although of course that has to be the long-term goal,” says Kammerer. “We will be looking at hundreds rather than thousands of cars in the first year. The idea is to get people working with the new technology. This is the first generation of hydrogen cars that will be handed over to the customer, but this is only the beginning.”
Mazda is also close to producing a hydrogen car. It has the advantage of being the only mainstream manufacturer already using a rotary engine in some of its cars, such as the RX-8. The engine can burn hydrogen with only minimal modifications and unlike conventional piston engines is not prone to backfiring on the fuel.
The Japanese company is building a fleet of 10 hydrogen RX-8s that it will lease to customers and will be refuelled from hydrogen filling stations provided in Tokyo and near Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters.
In America earlier this year Ford announced it had sold the first hydrogen-powered minibuses to the state of Florida, with deliveries set to take place next year. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger recently took delivery of a hydrogen-fuelled Hummer H2 — an environmentally friendly alternative to the gas-guzzling SUV the Hollywood star drove before becoming the state governor.
Before any of these cars can take to the road, they need the infrastructure to support them. Schwarzenegger has promised a $100m “hydrogen highway” with more than 200 stations by 2010. Japan has committed $4 billion over 15 years for research and development and Germany already boasts several operational hydrogen filling stations, including one in Berlin operated by BP (although branded Aral) with the capacity to fill up to 100 cars a day with hydrogen.
In Britain, Shell is going head to head with BP with its own plans for a chain of hydrogen filling stations. “We would hope to move quickly from isolated projects to building up the first network of hydrogen filling stations, to serve one large urban area, perhaps in London, Birmingham or Manchester by 2007,” says Jeremy Bentham, who runs Shell’s hydrogen division.
“We predict there will be between 5m and 10m hydrogen-powered cars by 2020 and hydrogen cars could represent the bulk of new car production by 2050. In a few years we’ll be used to seeing petrol and hydrogen cars filling up alongside each other.”
The beauty of hydrogen, everyone agrees, is that it is relatively straightforward to adapt a conventional engine to run on it. It is less polluting than petrol because it produces no carbon dioxide emissions, only water and small quantities of nitrogen oxides. But car designers are already looking at an even cleaner way to use hydrogen as fuel. Their holy grail is the hydrogen fuel cell that emits nothing more damaging than water.
General Motors is spending billions on fuel cell research and has plans to produce the first fuel cell car by 2010. It unveiled a fuel-cell concept car, the Sequel, that can travel 300 miles between refuels, at the Detroit Motor Show in January.
But the industry’s enthusiasm may be tempered by public suspicion of what could be seen as another environmental bandwagon. Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) was once hailed as the fuel of the future, but after initially supporting it, the government progressively cut subsidies for the fuel and grants for converting cars. As a result, some motorists and garages felt cheated.
At the fast-food counter of the BP garage in Hornchurch — one of a chain of Wild Bean cafes established by the company to enhance its environmental image — the men eating sausage rolls seemed oblivious to its significance. Even the BP attendant behind the till seemed unaware of it. “Hydrogen power — what’s that then?” he said.