Student project drives fuel cell development

Go karts today, tomorrow the cutting edge of fuel cell development for the world's automotive industry.

(Left to right) PhD student Paul Shearing, Dr Gregory Offer, undergraduate Matias Hernandez and technical manager Ralph Clague

(Left to right) PhD student Paul Shearing, Dr Gregory Offer, undergraduate Matias Hernandez and technical manager Ralph Clague

That's the plan at least, for the cadre of students working on a rolling project Imperial Racing Green at London's Imperial College to design and build faster, better hydrogen fuel cell/electric hybrid motors.

The first product of their labour, a go kart which compares favourably to a high performance sports car, was on show this week in the capital at the Science Museum, alongside a similarly impressive contraption from Warwick University.

"There's a competition called Formula Student run by ImechE," Dr Gregory Offer, one of the project leaders, told edie.

The competiton is, like professional Formula 1, a testing ground for new ideas, but predominantly for internal combustion engines.

"We're hoping to encourage the competition to go green, to move towards alternative engines," said Dr Offer.

"We're keen to promote technology neutral - we don't want to say it has to be a fuel cell, we want other technologies like biodiesel."

The Imperial College programme is an undergraduate teaching project, aimed at providing engineers-in-training with the knowledge they need to take up posts in industry developing alternative motors.

Dr Gregory said: "The automotive industry is already moving towards hybrid vehicles. In ten years' time probably all vehicles that come off the production line will be electric at least in part. The industry is going to need engineers who have experience of doing that, and the experience we provide will be invaluable.

"Cost at the moment is the main obstacle, but if you mass produce these you will have a higher initial cost but you save money on efficiency."

He added that a report soon to be published by the US Department of Energy estimates that in a decade's time the increased cost would be down to $1,000-$2,000 dollars but the fuel costs would be about half of those associated with the equivalent petrol engine.

He said that while the green possibilities were now trickling into the general consciousness, the public is not really aware of the benefits of fuel cells.

"The public is concerned about environmentalism and greenhouse gases, but they are not aware that these vehicles have so much better performance," he said.

"Even if you're a rabid petrol head you'd love these vehicles because they go so much faster."

Unlike a petrol-driven car, the fuel cell-powered model can use all its torque from a standstill, he said, which gives it remarkable acceleration.

"Effectively, you can access all your power, all the time," he said.

Beyond the cost, the other obstacle to the fuel cell revolution is finding a sustainable way to provide the energy to charge them.

Dr Offer said that would mean a new generation of nuclear power stations or an extensive renewables programme - thousands of wind turbines would be needed to charge the nations cars if we all went electric.

"Either way we've got to move away from the concept that energy is free and that we can take it out of the ground without consequence," he said.

"We need to make our energy before we can use it, and we need to do that in a way that doesn't damage the environment."

Sam Bond


hydrogen | hybrid


Waste & resource management
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