Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Rex Harris, Chair of the Energy Futures Group, University of Birmingham

  At the University of Birmingham we are engaged in a major research drive to exploit hydrogen as an effective energy vector linked to a range of clean, renewable energy sources. Thus, there are programmes on the generation of hydrogen from biomass (eg sugar waste from Cadburys) the solid-state storage of hydrogen using novel materials, the employment of hydrogen to improve combustion efficiency in diesel engines, the employment of hydrogen in fuel cells and on the environmental impact of a hydrogen economy. All these activities will form part of a Hydrogen Technology Centre (HyTeC) Metallurgy and Materials and Chemical Sciences are coordinating a large Framework five EC-grant called Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Stores for Integration into Automobiles (FUCHSIA) and this is part of a consortium involving the Universities of Birmingham and Reading (UK), Johnson Matthey (UK), IFW-Dresden (Germany) and the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). The aim here is to develop an effective "on-board" solid-state hydrogen store to power a H2/O2 fuel cell driven automobile.

  Hydrogen storage represents a major technical challenge and an effective solid-state store would have considerable advantages over alternatives of liquid hydrogen or compressed gas cylinders, particularly for transport applications. It would operate at moderate temperatures (up to 80ºC) and moderate pressures of around one atmosphere. In the case of liquid hydrogen or compressed gas cylinders, a substantial fraction of the energy (up to 30%) is employed in either liquefying the hydrogen or compressing the gas. In addition, there are significant safety concerns associated with these forms of hydrogen storage.

  The University of Birmingham is also coordinating the EPSRC SUPERGEN Initiative on hydrogen and this is focussing on the development of effective solid-state hydrogen stores and will coordinate the research effort throughout the UK. The City of Birmingham has also targeted sustainable development as a vital aspect of its Eastside development, the largest building project in Europe. This includes the development of a hydrogen infrastructure and the EPSRC are likely to fund a feasibility study at the University on the potential for SD-schemes in the Eastside development. The University, together with Advantage West Midlands and the City Council is also responding to the recent DTI, low C-vehicle initiative.

  Having summarised the research and development activities in the University of Birmingham, we would now like to address the inquiry terms of reference as listed in the press notice.

  (1)  In our view, the current level of expenditure in research and development in hydrogen-based technologies is inadequate and substantially below that of the USA, Japan (£16 million this fiscal year) and Germany. In the UK, too much time is being taken up seeking competitive funding and long term financial assistance would allow scientist and engineers to develop the necessary new materials and technologies without having to worry constantly about the next grant. We very much welcome the SUPERGEN initiative, which represents a major step forward, and we would wish to see this develop into something comparable to the USA DOE integrated programme on hydrogen storage, which would require a significant increase in the level of funding.

  (2)  The existing industrial activities in hydrogen in the UK are limited and should receive support, eg Johnson Matthey, BP, Shell, and SMEs such as SW Electrolysers, Less Common Metals, Intelligent Power, etc. It is vital that there should be substantial support for medium/large-scale demonstrators throughout the UK to support these industries and provide working experience. Scotland is providing a strong lead in this regard and hopefully will provide an excellent example to be emulated by regional authorities throughout the UK.

  (3)  The skills base is in crisis in the UK with falling numbers of engineers in the areas required to develop the necessary infrastructure. This is particularly true for Materials Science and Materials Engineering where falling numbers will seriously threaten our national expertise in these areas. The excitement of a hydrogen economy should be exploited to recruit young people to these disciplines. This, in our view, is a matter of the utmost urgency.

  (4)  There are too many government agencies involved in this area and the picture is confusing. We believe that there should be one body coordinating the whole exercise.

  (5)  The FUCHSIA project is an excellent example of international collaboration but, unfortunately, there is no DTI sponsored programme on the hydrogen economy despite being under consideration for some years. This puts the UK at a disadvantage when it comes to international programmes. We must be able to "bring something to the party". Framework six offers a great opportunity to boost the UK programme but it will be intensively competitive and should be effectively augmented by separate UK funding.

  (6)  The privatised energy companies might see distributed energy as a threat rather than an opportunity. The Woking initiative should be regarded as a model for the rest of the UK.

  (7)  The recent DTI Low Carbon Vehicle Initiative highlighted the importance of the manufacturing sector the UK economy and in particular the car and car component industry. However, the UK is losing its manufacturing base and, if this continues, the UK will not be able to commercially exploit the enormous opportunities presented by the non-carbon fuel economy. The creation of clean energy "spin-offs" should be encouraged at every possible opportunity.

  All these problems are solvable but we must avoid the "can't do" and "too little too late" attitudes. We would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss these vitally important matters further and we believe that there is an urgent need for a national debate on this subject.

20 September 2002

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