Let’s see how scientists and manufacturers are joining forces to support this industrial evolution.
Like in every big city, the air in London is increasingly polluted because of car fumes.
One solution is to try am make all taxis emission-free by 2020.
A small fleet of hydrogen-powered taxis is being tested as part of this European project.
These black cabs running on fuel cells rather than combustion engines are much cleaner and quieter.
“This vehicle drives entirely differently to anything I’ve driven before,” says taxi driver Phil Davis.
“It’s much smoother, quieter, and it’s a pleasure to drive. It’s responsive, everything on it is electronic, which means less work for me to do. After getting out, after a few hours, it’s like I’ve not been to work at all,” he says.
A tank-full of hydrogen gives the taxi up to 400 kilometres autonomy.
The tests should give researchers a better idea of how to make the vehicles lighter and more efficient.
“There’s an enormous amount that we learn: the vehicle integration – how the different components talk to each other within the power chain; and how the vehicles operate: different taxi drivers, different driving style, different performance characteristics, and importantly, how they interface with hydrogen for refuelling,” says Dennis Hayter, of Intelligent Energy, a London-based clean power systems company.
Today, converting a car to hydrogen fuel increases its price five-fold – making it completely unaffordable.
But at the current rate of research, it’s hoped this technology can become more competitive in the next few years.
“There are standards that will still need to be put in place for hydrogen vehicles, but part of projects like this helps to address those issues. As we move towards commercialisation of these vehicles in 2015, the required regulations will be addressed and in place,” says Diana Raine, project coordinator for the HyTEC (Hydrogen Transport for European Cities) project.
With a growing demand for clean fuels, governments and scientists need to get together to develop more efficient vehicles and better infrastructure.
The European Commissions’ in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre, based in northern Italy, works with a wide range of eco-industries.
In the JRC’s vehicle emissions laboratory, tests are being carried out on new equipment that reduces harmful engine exhausts.
“We look into different options, we assess these technologies, and then we share our conclusions with the car-making industry, setting the new standard of the future for these cars,” says Alois Krasenbrink, Head of the JRC’s Sustainable Transport Unit.
But is hydrogen a cleaner alternative if it relies on fossil fuels for its production?
Are electric cars running on batteries made of imported, rare earth compounds sustainable?
Scientists are looking not only at the final product but at its carbon footprint.
“It is certainly true that on a local level, on an urban level, electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles are cleaner,” says Laura Lonza, scientific officer in vehicle and fuel innovation at the JRC.
“But it’s important to carry out research on the full energy footprint, not just on what happens inside the car,” she adds.
Laboratory analyses of combusting engine emissions can differ from real-life situations.
This new mobile device, developed at the Joint Research Center, fits in a car trunk and works while the vehicle is on the road.
“The device is connected to the exhaust pipe. The exhausts go to the fume meter. This allows us to measure directly the fume exhaust flow, and to extract a part of this flow which is then analysed,” says Alois Krasenbrink.
Mobile tools like this are able to provide much more accurate measurements.
For example, these tests show that in certain real-life conditions, cars produce two to four times more emissions than in a lab.
Let’s now head to Germany for a look at another eco-industry undergoing major change: renewable electricity.
We visit a former military airbase near Brandenburg that has just been transformed into Europe’s largest photovoltaic plant.
It produces enough energy for a medium-sized city, massively reducing CO2 emissions in this area.
“Yearly production is 85 gigawatt-hours, that’s 22,500 households – or a city of about 90,000 people,” according to Ronald Stephan, project engineering and design manager at solar panel manufacturer Q-Cells.
Germany gets about 1,000 hours of sunlight per year.
That’s enough to make such installations profitable over their expected lifetime of about 30 years.
“There’s been huge progress when it comes to efficiency and cost reduction over the last couple of years,” says Ronald Stephan. “It’s now a sustainable option to replace fossil fuels with clean energy.”
Back at the Joint Research Centre, researchers are busy studying solar panel performances.
Scientists use sophisticated dark rooms and outdoor testing grounds.
“We’re particularly interested in the power output of the panel itself, so that we’ll be able to specify a value that a panel should produce under standard conditions of temperature and solar radiation,” says Nigel Taylor, photovoltaics team leader at the JRC.
The photovoltaic sector is evolving fast, and brings together a range of industries and technologies, which must work together closely to produce results.
The head of the JRC’s renewable energies unit is confident about the future:
“We’re able to provide increasingly competitive alternatives to conventional energy sources, especially as new generations of researchers are coming up with fresh ideas, bringing together disciplines like bioengineering and chemistry. So I’m confident that they will help develop these new sources of energy,” says Heinz Ossenbrink, head of Renewable Energies at the JRC.
Boosting growth, creating new jobs and reducing greenhouse gases – if they are able to meet the economic challenge in this competitive sector, eco-industries could offer a sustainable alternative both for Man and for the Planet.