The University of South Wales’ Baglan Hydrogen Centre has the ability to refuel hydrogen powered vehicles, but until recently we didn’t have a hydrogen vehicle of our own to use. Last week we took delivery of a hydrogen powered van. The van is part of the Eco-Island project investigating hydrogen vehicle refuelling and use. The University of South Wales’ role is to evaluate the performance and operating characteristics of the refuelling station at the Baglan Hydrogen Centre and to develop refuelling strategies to maximise the efficiency of the refueller. It will also allow the performance of the van to be investigated, and parameters such as typical hydrogen usage and number of refills to be determined. The van uses an internal combustion engine adapted to run on either petrol or hydrogen. The choice of fuel is made by the driver. The van will be used for journeys between the hydrogen centre at Baglan, and the main campus in Trefforest.
Hydrogen has the potential to be a major component in our future energy systems, particularly as a vehicle fuel. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but it can only be found rarely in its elemental form on earth. It is nearly always found combined with other elements, e.g. with oxygen to form water, or with carbon to form hydro-carbons such as methane. Because of this we must produce hydrogen from these feed stocks. For this reason we can describe hydrogen as a fuel vector, which we have to produce before we can use it. In this way it is similar to electricity.
When hydrogen is used to power the van, no greenhouse gas emissions are produced, as the van relies on the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen, with the only by-product being water. However, greenhouse gas may be emitted in the production of hydrogen, depending on the source of hydrogen used. Hydrogen can be produced from a number of different sources these include.
- Electricity via electrolysis of water
- Biomass, e.g. anaerobic digestion
- Fossil fuels, e.g. steam methane reforming
The ability of hydrogen to reduce vehicle emissions is dependent on the method of hydrogen production. If renewable sources such as photovoltaic or wind power are used, then there are no greenhouse gas emissions associated with the hydrogen (other than those released in manufacturing equipment). If fossil fuels are used to produce the hydrogen, then greenhouse gas will be produced. However, as the emissions are centralised it increases the possibility of utilising carbon capture and storage.
The van uses an internal combustion engine adapted to use hydrogen as a fuel. It operates in a very similar way to a standard hydrogen engine. Instead of petrol, hydrogen is combusted with oxygen to drive pistons in the engine, and this mechanical power is used to turn the wheels. The engine must be controlled differently to take account of the different properties of hydrogen compared to petrol. Alternatively to internal combustion engines, fuel cell vehicles are currently being developed in which hydrogen and oxygen are combined electrochemically in a fuel cell, producing electricity and heat. The electricity can be used to power electric motors, similarly to an electric vehicle.
The van will be an important addition to the hydrogen centre, as we now have the ability to produce, store and utilise hydrogen both in the hydrogen centre’s office building, and for the vehicle. This will give important information as to how we manage the centres operation to take into account the extra hydrogen demand from the van.
Research Fellow and Lecturer in Renewable Energy Systems
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales