Crisis is a lift to gas alternative

September 15, 2000

The fuel crisis could prove an unexpected boost for scientists working on innovative technologies to rival the internal combustion engine. Efforts to develop fuel cells that generate electrical power by combining hydrogen and oxygen are enjoying a renaissance.

Increased state and European funding for projects in recent years has paralleled technological advances that have seen prototype buses in the United States, Canada and Germany.

However, many experts believe British industry, with the exception of Rolls-Royce and Johnson Matthey, is missing an opportunity to help drive the research forward.

They hope the current furore might persuade companies and entrepreneurs to explore and invest in the initial niche market opportunities promised by the new technology.

Saiful Islam, who is working on the materials side of the technology at the University of Surrey, said: "Our universities are punching above our weight, but UK industry hasn't invested as much as other countries."

Jim McDonald, Rolls-Royce professor at the University of Strathclyde, said:

"The difficulties of depending on Opec for fuel might now focus minds on the advantages of a more hydrogen-based economy."

While fuel cell-powered buses are being tested in Chicago and Vancouver, experts agree that many problems remain to be overcome before cars can be powered in this way.

For a start, there is no consensus as to which fuel should be used. The current prototypes use hydrogen gas, but this is inefficient and impractical to store as well as prohibitively expensive compared with diesel or petrol.

Liquid fuels, such as methane, would be better and could be dispensed from existing petrol stations, but their use brings additional complications to the chemical process.

Fuel cells generate electricity and heat by combining hydrogen and oxygen within an electrolyte sandwiched between two electrodes. The byproduct is water, making the technology far less polluting than conventional alternatives.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded more than Pounds 2 million in grants for fuel cell work in nine British universities under its Pounds 11 million renewable and clean electricity generation programme.

There are additional funding streams from the Department of Trade and Industry, which is channelling some Pounds 2 million into mainly commercial ventures, and the European Union's framework five energy, environment and sustainable development programme.

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