Energy and the high street (Day 172)

Energy and the high street (Day 172)

15th November 2014

Image: Chris Jenner,

Many consumers find the energy markets frustrating and, whichever country you live in, it is likely that the choice of where you get your gas or electricity from will be limited, even if provided by the private sector.

The most ubiquitous, successful and competitive model we currently have for 'buying' energy is the petrol station. The first makeshift 'filling station' appeared in 1888 in Germany. The first purpose-built 'gas station' was constructed in the USA in 1905.

Today, there's in excess of a million petrol stations dotted around the world, and it is infrastructure on this scale, along with public acceptance, that are important enablers to the widespread adoption of any technology, especially energy.

In the attempts to provide a transition to sustainable transport fuels, significant effort has been made to develop alternatives to petrol and diesel from fossil fuels. Over the past decade, the number of electric car charging points has gradually increased, but it has been slow.

An alternative to electric cars is hydrogen fuel cells. A lot of research has been carried out around the world to develop these technologies. Chemical engineers have played an important part in developing the materials for the fuel cells, hydrogen production and hydrogen infrastructure for a safe and efficient transport fuel.

I’ve already blogged about the hydrogen bike from the University of New South Wales, but cars and larger vehicles have become embedded in society and will probably remain.

There are already a few refuelling stations supplying some commercial vehicles in UK cities such as Aberdeen and London. However, in what may be the tipping point, a major UK high street retailer has committed to supporting this clean technology.

Sainsbury’s, one of the largest supermarkets in the UK, joined the initiative last year and has just announced that it will be the first UK supermarket to have a hydrogen refuelling station by the end of 2014. The refuelling station will be owned and operated by Air Products.

As a member of the UKH2Mobility project, this is a contribution to expanding the network of hydrogen refuelling stations. It is planned that there will be 15 by the end of 2015.

The School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham is home to the Centre for Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Research. Chemical engineers at the University work on developing materials for fuel cells and hydrogen production technology. Although the contribution from a high street name such as Sainsbury’s is vital, Birmingham can claim the first public hydrogen refuelling station in England!

In a paper published by Scott Hardman and Robert Steinberger-Wilckens at the University of Birmingham, the importance of infrastructure and the successful adoption of fuel cell vehicle technologies were discussed. The paper used information and knowledge from the deployment of the mobile phone network to determine the requirements for success of new fuel technologies.

This just goes to show that the integrated approach that chemical engineers apply to their work is absolutely vital. It is also important evidence to support the science and engineering communities call for policy and decision-makers to ensure a long-term strategy for energy and other innovations that support the move to a low carbon economy.