Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 63)



  Q60  Dr Gibson: How early? How late is late?

  Mr Loughhead: It is scientific research still.

  Q61  Dr Gibson: Do you think that it is worth supporting?

  Mr Loughhead: It is worth supporting and there is already industrial interest. Shell have just started work in Hawaii on related topics and I think that it has a very high potential for the future, very high research interest but at the very early stage.

  Q62  Dr Gibson: Finally, for electricity generation, where has first and second stage bio-fuels research and development got to? It is getting a priority or is it just a nice thing to do or do you feel that there is a real push? Is it the same push as making a trident missile for example?

  Mr Loughhead: A different stage of research, with respect. I think that the work that is going on is substantial but, if we decide that we wish to pursue it seriously, probably there is scope for more to be done than we are currently doing now. My estimation for instance is that a country like India is putting much more resource and focus on that than the UK for very good reasons in the Indian context.

  Q63  Dr Gibson: For the record, why is that?

  Mr Loughhead: The reason is that India has enormous quantities of agricultural waste residue and, if they can find a way of converting that into useable bio-fuel, it fulfils not only their energy objectives but it also gives their rural villagers a potential income stream and a way of generating money from stuff which at the moment is just a problem to them. So, it has a very strong social value as well.

  Q64  Graham Stringer: What are the major constraints on the deployment of fuel cell technology and, if you want support for the development of industries, how on earth do the Government choose to support technologies that are as different as fuel cell technology compared to wind power or solar?

  Mr Loughhead: I will take that question. The problems with the deployment of fuel cells is that first of all there are two different areas of deployment, either in vehicles which are the so-called low temperature fuel cells or in stationary applications, the high temperature fuel cells. For the first, the problem is cost compared with existing technology plus the problem of supplying hydrogen, which they need for fuel, from a source that is itself sustainable or renewable. At the moment, the cost of these devices is more than order of magnitude, probably two orders of magnitude greater than it would need to be to be commercially competitive. It is also a different technology; it is a disruptive technology; you need electric drive systems rather than mechanical drive systems; there is not the infrastructure to support and maintain the technology. In order to do it, it would need a substantive encouragement, whether through fiscal measures or whether through direct support means, to take it through into the market. If that were to happen, because of the international nature of the automotive market it would need to be done as part of a concerted international effort and Europe has just launched what they call a joint technology initiative to try to do that and hopefully the UK will play an intelligent part in that initiative to get the most benefit out of it and to support it. For the stationary applications, they are differentiated in that they can use carbon containing fuels and the big advantage is that they can generate electricity at high efficiency but at small scale, even down to domestic scale, and therefore they open up the possibility of combined heat and power. For instance, with one of the UK developers, British Gas is about to launch a demonstration scheme measured in the about 10,000 units. In order for that to then go forward, again there will need to be some incentive to do that rather than the conventional approach and I think that is going to be down to some consideration by Government to decide how best to do that.

  Chairman: I am going to leave that there. I apologise to you all—you have been an absolutely splendid panel this morning—because we have not done justice to the agenda that we set ourselves. I ask that we may write to you with some of the issues which we have not been able to fully explore with you in order to complete the evidence session for this morning. I thank Professor John Wilson, John Loughhead, Dr Gordon Edge and Philip Wolfe. Thank you very, very much indeed for your contribution this morning.

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