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Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Tale Of Two Buses


The London Mayor elections are turning into a battle between buses.

The one is the result of a Ken Livingstone fantasy - created in 2004 that London's Transport would be powered by hydrogen. This dream was not allowed to remain of the pipe variety but spawned a hydrogen bureaucracy, fully equipped with sub-committees and a 'steering committee' to oversee Ken's creation. He procured members of the academic elite to sit in on them, no doubt handsomely paid for coming and gestating Ken's Big Plan. A lot of sitting and a lot of talking has been the result, with a lot of money spent.

The objective clearly stated was to have 70 public service vehicles powered by hydrogen working for London by 2010/2011, safely beyond the date of the forthcoming election tussle with Boris. Ten of these 70 vehicles are to be buses, and ten have indeed been ordered from an American supplier and are soon due for delivery creating much excitement and expectation amongst Londoners that the pollution from buses can soon be a thing of the past.

There are one or two problems however. For a start there are no commercial supplies of hydrogen available. On the London Transport Hydrogen website, a rather forlorn sentence gives the picture. 'We hope to locate suppliers of hydrogen by early 2008', which slightly gives the game away. There is no hydrogen as yet.

I suppose if the price is high enough, someone will work out a way to deliver a dribble of hydrogen to get the buses going, but setting up the necessary infrastructure to deliver hydrogen commercially around London will no doubt cost far more than the US$20 million paid for the buses.

Ken insists that his hydrogen buses have the same capability as the diesel ones they are to replace, and focuses on the high cost of the vehicles as the only relevant problem. Funny then that, at the latest symposium on hydrogen buses in America, the enthisastic spiel from the conference left on their website, ends with the following words -

range and
durability are the
remaining problems to
be solved.


Assuming Ken can find some hydrogen, and he obviously hasn't done so after four years of searching so far, how much hydrogen will it be possible to store inside the hydrogen pressurised tanks on board his buses? And what will be their range between refills? I don't think that reality is being faced yet. And how long will the fuel cells costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each, last? Ken just wants an exciting publicity stunt, but at what cost to the taxpayer, not to mention the soon-to-be disappointed expectations of his electors? So far, as usual in the media, he is getting away with making out this is a viable project. When will the media penny drop? That is the question.

The fact is that hydrogen technology is not ready for commercial operation yet, and spending tens of millions of tax payers money on it is barmy.

If Ken had ordered maybe a total of not seventy but three vehicles to put on test and contribute to development, I would find that acceptable, but Ken is ordering 70 vehicles and is expecting the Police and emergency services to get involved as well as transport services, making people dependent on a new technology not yet proven, or near ready for front line services to be dependent upon it. I wonder who will be the first casualty of a non-arrival of an emergency services vehicle because of hydrogen, or the first passengers stranded by the non-arrival of a daily commuter's bus.

Boris' bus, on the other hand, is based entirely on proven technology, using a conventional engine, able to run on bio-fuels at a continuous rate to recharge batteries located at the wheels, creating an electrically powered silent bus. The vehicle has no transmission or gears and so can be lowered to pathement level to receive and delivery wheel chairs and baby-strollers with ease. There is no surge of noxious exhausts as the vehicle pulls away. There can be a dramatic lessening of the pollution spewed into the lungs of other road users and pedestrians as of now, achievable using current proven technology. It is an intelligent next technological step for bus transportation, leaving fuel cell technology the time it needs to get up to a level where public services can responsibly made reliant upon it and at viable cost.

If the way Boris and Ken go about buses is to symbolise their ability to take sensible decisions, and not waste taxpayers' money, then Boris is the hands-down winner. It will indeed be a Greater London with Boris as its Mayor, and a considerably wealthier one to boot.

3 comments:

Yokel said...

Part of my work is with a company that uses hydrogen as part of its process. It uses tankersful of the stuff. These days the tankers come from the continent, as the suppliers have shut down the last remaining UK supply. I hope that Uncle Ken has factored in the use of diesel to get the hydrogen from Rotterdam or wherever else it comes from! And you don't get much hydrogen in a tanker, most of the space is fresh air between the cylinders.

tapestry said...

My sources tell me that the only economic way to deliver and ship hydrogen around is as Ammonia, which has the formula NH3. It is a dense gas, and is produced on an industrial scale and is delivered everywhere.

Inside the vehicle it is 'cracked' by heating it up. The hydrogen splits from the nitrogen and they instantly separate with hydrogen rising to the ceiling of the chamber.

The problem is the pumping from the bulk storage into the vehicle's fuel tank. NH3 is a highly pungent gas and even a drop spilled would cause personnel to evacuate. Ammonia pumping systems are being worked on by vehicle manufacturers and by oil companies, so that ammonia can be delivered successfully.

If this problem was solved, there is a viable fuel supply route.

But the fuel cells only last about one year in continuous operation before they degrade. That is not yet long enough for the lifetime of the vehicles.

tapestry said...

I should have said that the fuel cells last only for one year of continual operation and then degrade and need complete replacement. Each one costs hundreds of thousands of US dollars.