Future of energy is a gas when you harness the help of hydrogen
Published in The Scotsman, 11th April 2009
By Charles Henderson
FIFE'S industrial heyday in the 19th century was fuelled largely by its rich coal seams. Now, in view of a defunct coal-fired power station in Methil, a new hydrogen-fuelled office is helping the region show us the future of energy.
The office will soon form the centrepiece of a world-leading hydrogen energy hub, and the new headquarters for 20 renewable energy experts, including St Andrews Fuel Cells Ltd.
On first appearances, the Hydrogen Office seems unremarkable. A three storey grey cube, without the wooden cladding, grass roof or solar panels common to many "green" buildings, it could be overlooked by a passerby.
But its outward ordinariness may turn out to be one of its greatest strengths. The centre has been deliberately designed to test hydrogen power in as normal a construction context as possible.
Derek Mitchell, director of the Hydrogen Office project, explains: "We are demonstrating a number of innovations for developers. They can pick and choose the components, which are most appropriate to their office. What we are doing will be replicable in many buildings. We are just showing it is possible."
A great deal of the design is common sense. This starts with a reduction in energy needs as much as possible. Insulation levels are very high and windows are well-sealed and double glazed. Natural ventilation removes the need for air conditioning and natural light is maximised through the careful layout. Necessary lighting, in the hallway, is provided by LEDs (light emitting diodes).
As with much clean technology in buildings, many of the other innovations are barely visible.
Heat, stored in the surrounding ground, is captured, and pumped in to warm the office. Four boreholes have been sunk adjacent to the office 100 metres deep and the heat is transferred via a series of copper pipes.
In-wall heating, another innovation, is being used in the fabric of the building. This requires lower power than standard radiators to work efficiently. It also avoids interference with cabling and other piping.
But the exciting widgets are to be found in the energy centre building, where the hydrogen equipment is being installed. This includes a ten-kilowatt fuel cell, an electrolyser and a test room for prototypes.
A hydrogen fuel cell, about the size of a fridge, is based on a very simple idea. It is a battery that exploits the energy in the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen. When these two elements are introduced, electricity is produced, with heat and water as a by-product.
With this device, a supply of hydrogen and oxygen becomes an electricity source. Conversely, when electricity is applied to an electrolyser, the process is reversed, and hydrogen and oxygen are generated.
The office's large white fuel tank, clearly marked "hydrogen", sits in a protected open area adjoining the energy centre. Its 340 cubic metres of hydrogen will be enough to power the office for a week.
A common misconception about hydrogen is the danger of explosion. Mr Mitchell explains the reality, and how these risks are minimised: "Hydrogen would need to build up to a concentration of about four per cent in a confined space, to pose a risk of explosion. As the lightest substance known to man, hydrogen will seek out any means of escape from a room, and can even diffuse through brickwork, so this is very improbable.
"We have also installed vents in the roof of every room of the energy centre. As an extra precaution, our management system is linked to hydrogen sensors, and programmed to shut down the flow of gas should there be any risk."
A 55-metre wind turbine will produce electricity and keep the hydrogen tank topped up. It will be installed on the harbour wall opposite the office later this year.
Ironically, getting hold of a wind turbine, these days proved to be more difficult than buying hi-tech hydrogen gadgetry.
"We needed a 750 kilowatt turbine, which is medium sized, and relatively unusual, by today's standards," says Mr Mitchell. "Most manufacturers make bigger turbines, and also expect buyers to make bulk orders. It's taken us four years to find this one."
On a windy day, the turbine will power the whole of the energy park, split water to hydrogen and oxygen, and export to the grid. When the wind stops blowing, the automated building management system will switch automatically to the fuel cell. Hydrogen will flow, the cell will generate power, and electricity will be sent to the building. Heat will be captured and used to warm the space.
The scheme first emerged on the drawing board five years ago. It was awarded £1 million through the East of Scotland European Partnership. Initially planned for Midlothian, it then became a victim of restructure and funding cuts. But the delay proved to be timely, and it is what brought the office to Fife. With its "energy park" concept already conceived, Scottish Enterprise Fife decided to fit one of the three offices out as a hydrogen demonstrator.
After a couple of frustrating years, the office secured the rest of its funding, a further £2 million from Scottish Enterprise Fife and private sector developer Alsherra Investments Ltd. The wind turbine will cost a further £1million or so, which is close to being secured.
The Hydrogen Office is run through a not-for-profit organisation, and revenue raised by exporting electricity to the grid is being used to fund education, demonstration, research and development.
In the office's meeting rooms, its story will be brought to life and explained to visitors. Up-to-the-minute displays will show energy consumption, power generated by the turbine and how the fuel cell is functioning.
And what of the bigger picture, how hydrogen may become a fuel of Scotland's energy future? Mr Mitchell says: "We are facing constraints and shortages as global energy needs rise and fossil fuel supplies dwindle. With more power due to generated from wind and marine power, a storage system is needed to cope with intermittency. Traditional solid batteries are expensive and cumbersome".
He continues: "In hydrogen, we have a technologically flexible, environmentally favourable and safe storage fuel. It is appropriate for remote communities in the Highlands and Islands, by plugging the energy gap and allowing these communities to go off grid."
So, with his brainchild opening after five years of hard work, what does Mr Mitchell plan next? "Once our wind turbine is up and running, and the office running smoothly, we are considering a tidal head project in the harbour adjacent to the office. We are also thinking about transport. Perhaps a hydrogen vehicle demonstrator," he says.
When the office opens for business and shows visitors the clean efficiency of its fuel and energy system, we may expect more hydrogen-powered buildCharles Henderson