Sunday, 15 December 2013

It's Hydrogen, stupid

A century ago, when electricity was being rolled out, London consumers had not only a choice of voltages but could pick DC or AC. Appliances, distribution and switchgear, lamps and outlets were all hand-crafted from Mahogany and brass and glass and porcelain. Moving house often meant buying a completely new set of electrical goods as the old ones only worked in Bloomsbury. The PR contests between the rival systems were bizarre - one involved electrocuting an elephant, I recall. Eventually we settled on a single system. Electrical Engineers will have a view on whether it was the right one or just the one that won the PR war. 

Electricity was not without a rival system - hydraulic power. Using a distribution network of pressurised water, a new generation of domestic machines could wash, vacuum, chill, heat and ventilate. The roads were even dug up and so many miles of hydraulic pipes laid that contractors today are still removing them whenever excavating old roads. Hydraulic power stations were built and shareholders and investors wasted millions backing the Victorian version of Betamax. Electricity, of course, won.

But as an alternative to road fuel, electricity is an utter failure. News today that three-quarters of the electric car charging points installed at vast public expense have never ever been used should surprise no-one. After all, they were never intended for actual use; like those bizarre PR stunts of a century earlier, they were only ever designed as an advertising gimmick to get people to buy electric cars. "Oh no, madam" the salesman could explain "the Electowhiz can never run out of electricity - here's a map of the network of charging points across London". Of course, the only places left to site these charging points were spaces unsuitable for on-street parking due to endemic levels of car theft and vandalism or spaces too difficult to access for them to have been used for paid parking. In practice Fiona wouldn't even contemplate driving through the Mandela Estate, let alone leaving her Electrowhiz plugged in there for the day. 

And of course if Fiona wanted to drive down to the country at the weekend to see Mums and Dads, she'd need either a proper car or a train ticket. "OK Mums, I'll leave at three and see if I can get on the A4 by four, then a hotel in Guildford for the night to re-charge the Electrowhiz and I should be in Newbury by Saturday lunchtime - and I'll need to leave at tea-time to get home". 

If we need an alternative to petrol, diesel or methane it's got to be hydrogen. Hydrogen, so readily available from our vast coal reserves that the entire nation once used to cook and heat its homes with it. Mixed with the methane that also comes from fractionally distilling coal. A tank of Hydrogen will get Fiona home and back for the weekend and cover most of her week's commuting at a market price set in Reading not Dallas. 

One day in the future some young chap from Conways or Murphys will break-out a rusted old charging post from the footway as redundant and unrecognised as a hydraulic mains pipe is today and wonder what the heck he's clearing.


Mark In Mayenne said...

Electric doesn't cut it for long distances right now. Maybe OK for a city runabout, that's all.

Hydrogen or fuel cells I think in the long run. Our maybe hydrogen /electric hybrid.

Roger said...

Take one engineer's fag packet. Consider trip London-York - about 40litres = 28Kg = 1288MegaJoules, say half that in electricity (more efficient we hope) = 644MJ. Stop to fill up in say 5 minutes (plus payment time). This will require a power draw of about 2Megawatts which at say 500 volts into the car battery (a fair compromise) will require some 4000Amps (a pretty stout or well cooled cable) and a pretty fancy power controller to avoid a dramatic toast-up. All this assumes the battery (and Npower) can stand it.

Now consider a 40ton electric artic pulling in to fill up and a family trip to Klosters and the engineering alone looks very er challenging. All this to be cheap and work 24/7 in all weathers and fixable by ordinary technicians.

Don't much fancy hydrogen either. I reckon replacing oil will be a BIG (expensive) problem.

Johnm said...

LPG, got it all.
Don´t bother with hydrogen, too much bother to convert and store as a liquid. Far too much bother to store in a car as a high-pressure gas.
LPG, 72p/Ltr here, NOW.

Johnm said...

And LPG qualifies as a freebie for the London con zone. Saves over 2 grand a year in con zone charges for a small van. Same MPG as as a diesel engined.

FrankS said...

Round My way (leafy, congested Herts) the charging points all take up in-demand parking space in busy areas - and are never used.

Dave_G said...

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Petrol.

selsey.steve said...

Liquefied hydrogen in a tank in a car? Best IED on the road!
"But the tank can't leak after a collision."
And the Titanic couldn't sink.

G. Tingey said...

London - York 200 miles - 2 hours ELECTRIC TRAIN, right now.
Without "HS" - with HS, about 1hr 15min, probably.

Ed P said...

Electricity's great for trains, as everyone knows. But batteries are at least an order of magnitude adrift from adequate capacity for really useful cars. LPG's good (if you don't mind losing half the boot space for the tank), but hydrogen storage in a car is far too dangerous (unless it's in hydride capture storage, which has some benefits but also its own draw-backs.)

Ed P said...

Tesla planned energy transmission using RF: if this were developed, cars could be like trains in terms of speed and range. The energy would be supplied from the sides of the motorways, or from under the tarmac, so allowing speed and acceleration like proper cars, whilst recharging the batteries ready for the "A" & "B" roads after the junctions.

Johnm said...

¨The energy would be supplied from the sides of the motorways, or from under the tarmac¨

Nope. Not like trains in any respect. Trains are directly connected to the energy source. You´re going to radiate energy as radio frequency ¨waves¨ which means the losses in the system would be astronomical..power goes down as the inverse square of the distance. So radiate megawatts of power to try to power a time when it looks as if we´re going to be hard pressed to power the lights at home...don´t forget, soon we are going to have not enough power to run houses and factories!

Edward Spalton said...

My parents moved into a former manse which was next to our family's corn mill in Derby. This would be around 1935 One of the jobs the electricians had to do was to remove the old, DC electric cables and gear. There was a power station in central Derby (right next to the cathedral) which had been DC but converted to AC.

There are still transformers etc there, as many cables still go in that direction.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Roger, a sensible system would not charge the battery up, it would just swap it. The stock of discharged batteries would be charged in a more reasonable period of time, and at a time when power was cheaper and more available - perhaps, when it's windy?

And johnm, don't imagine for moment that the tax breaks for LPG road fuel would last five minutes longer than it took for the stuff to become genuinely popular. The State does not give up revenue, period.

Having said all which, our host is quite right about electric road vehicles. There's a reason only milk floats had this system in the past, and a reason why you don't even see those any more.

Liberista said...

hydrogen is very, very difficult to handle. all gaseous fuels are very dangerous and difficult to handle. best solution is a liquid fuel. there are many options. having abundant and cheap electric energy (nuclear) fuel can be synthetized, or distilled from coal.

all the rest is technological dead ends. the electric car was invented before the ICE powered car. was abandoned for good reasons. reasons still stand.
electric car is an expensive toy, good perhaps as third or fouth car.

Woodsy42 said...

I well remember as a child in the 50s our house in outer London being converted from DC to AC power. So it's a while ago but well within living memory. I sometimes wonder if maybe we should be moving back to low voltage DC for lighting and low power uses?

Johnm said...

You can do that, it´s called reducing the voltage from 230V to whatever you want.
In the ¨old¨ days it would have meant 50hz transformers, now it uses massively reduced transformers operating at kilohertz....switched-mode power supplies.
Or maybe you mean a central generator supplying different voltages?
Supplying high voltage is more efficient....reduced cable size and lower losses. 1KW at 230V is a smidgeon lower than 4 amps, 1KW at 12 volts is 84 amps....

Anonymous said...

Bring back horses.
What's the hurry?