Coventry’s Hydrogen Cars

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Continuing the wonderful English tradition of innovative cars built in a shed, John Jostins has been working on small electric vehicles for the last 18 years. Appalled by the poor air quality in London, he came up with an electric tricycle. As he won awards and grants based on the original design, he was able to improve it, establish the company Microcab and add a hydrogen fuel cell. In 2005, Coventry University became a shareholder in the project and Microcab moved to its current premises in the Coventry Technology park. This allowed Microcab to develop the four-wheeled H4 and subsequent H2EV, the current iteration.

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Microcab are not the only ones trying to make hydrogen fuel cells work. Toyota has recently introduced the Mirai and Hyundai have released several (small scale) production models that run on hydrogen. Obviously, they have much bigger budgets, so they should be able to do it better, right? Jostins naturally disagrees: “We believe in a lightweight vehicle. The OEMs are making big and heavy vehicles because they’ll hold a lot more hydrogen”. This means that they can have more luxury, while retaining a larger range. “We are saying that a hydrogen vehicle can be smaller, more compact and lighter. Our vehicles are much more efficient”. That way, they can also get away with a much smaller fuel cell. So while the big companies are working on cars to wow people, Microcab is taking the next steps in what we really need: efficient urban mobility. With that philosophy of lightness in mind, it’s also no surprise that the custom aluminium chassis is built by Lotus.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

From the outside, a fuel cell doesn’t exactly rival a Ferrari V12 as eye candy. It’s simply a box with some electric fans on. What goes on inside is all the more interesting, though. A hydrogen fuel cell is neither a motor nor an energy storage system like a battery. Having a fuel cell in a car is like having a tiny power station following you around. The energy (i.e. electricity) it produces can be sent to the motor(s), moving the car. So how does it work?

Hydrogen (H2, two hydrogen atoms) from the tank is introduced to a catalyst, i.e. a material that triggers or accelerates a chemical reaction but does not participate in it. This separates the atoms into protons and electrons. A membrane then only lets the protons through, while the electrons go on a different circuit. However, protons and electrons separately are unstable and want to re-join each other at the other end to reform H2 and combine with oxygen (O2), thus making water (H2O). The electrons moving (electricity is just that) to re-join the protons then drives the motor(s).

 

Small, light vehicles are all fine and dandy, but they become a bit of a problem when you want go somewhere far with the family, their luggage and the dog. On the other hand, hauling half a redundant car around when you’re on the way to work by yourself is extremely wasteful. For that reason, Microcab doesn’t believe in “putting the same kinds of vehicles on the road that we have now”. Jostins adds: “We don’t think car ownership is the way to go. Rather than making one kind of car that you use for everything, we’re developing a car sharing project with Italian partners”. He explains that this also means that “the asset can last longer, because it means profit to whoever owns it and they will want to make it last longer”. In addition, the car is also designed to last and for components to be refurbishable when they wear out. While the limited lifespan compared to internal combustion engines (about 7000 hours, or roughly 200 000 miles) and the initial cost are still important drawbacks of hydrogen fuel cells, much of a worn-out fuel cell can be re-used.

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The other issues with hydrogen are the limited refuelling infrastructure and the inefficient way in which Hydrogen is produced. Alleviating the former is a slow process as it’s extremely expensive to build the stations. Progress is being made, however, partly thanks to European projects such as SWARM, which is building a network that allows one to drive from Scotland to Scandinavia. The latter problem is even more difficult to eradicate, as the two main methods have some fundamental drawbacks. Electrolysis – splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity – requires much more electricity than the produced hydrogen can give back in a fuel cell, while steam reformation – using methane and hot steam – inherently has CO2 as a by-product. Although you can use locally produced wind or solar power to make hydrogen and use it to store energy when it’s not needed immediately, you could argue – as most notably Tesla’s Elon Musk has – that you’re better off putting it straight into a battery. While the current inefficiency of hydrogen production and scarcity of filling stations are undeniable, there is still a place for hydrogen according to Jostins. He argues that it’s not a competition: they both have their place. For vehicles that need to function for extended periods of time like taxis and delivery vans, battery cars are still massively compromised because they have to recharge too often and for too long. Because hydrogen cars need a battery anyway for when the fuel cell is still starting up, “having both in one car”, like in the Microcab, “is the ultimate solution”, argues Jostins. “You use the batteries on short journeys and you save the hydrogen for longer ones”.

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Looking around the car itself, it looks rough and ready like the development prototype that it is. A couple of things stand out, though. Both in profile and from the front, it is reminiscent of the original Mercedes A-class. It has the same roomy feel inside and the same short-nosed, tall structure – not particularly sexy, but very efficient. That’s partly because they share the concept of double floors that can house batteries, a fuel cell and any associated paraphernalia. Amenities are still extremely basic, but what you need every day is there. Most of the 8 H2EVs have in fact been used as commuter cars for the employees for the last couple of years to see how they perform day-to-day and have been continuously upgraded. Jostins says that there are currently no concrete plans for series production as that would take a lot more investment. This doesn’t mean that they’ve just been sitting around, though. Apart from developing the existing car, they participate in a host of projects to further the cause of hydrogen and alternative mobility in general. Meanwhile, they have started work on a new, (even) smaller model with a larger range. The Hylyte, as it’s currently called, should become a kind of modular delivery vehicle.

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Hydrogen is not dead, then. Although there are some serious concerns that still need to be addressed – most importantly the inefficient production and lacking distribution of the hydrogen – there’s clearly a future for hydrogen-powered cars, especially until we have truly fast charging batteries. Meanwhile, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are cleaner than internal combustion engine cars and have more long-distance potential than battery electric cars. Big players might grab the headlines, but small companies like Microcab are indispensable at paving the way for innovation.

Specifications

Materials: Aluminium chassis, composite body
Hydrogen tank capacity: 1.8kg
Drive: Twin DC motors, 40kW peak
Transmission: Single speed, belt drive to front wheels
Power output: 40kW (54 bhp)
Fuel cell power: 3.0kW continuous
Battery: Lithium battery pack, 4.3kWh capacity
Top speed: 55 mph
Maximum range: 180 miles
Weight: 750 kg
Dimensions: Length: 3.5 metres, height: 1.7 metres, width: 1.6 metres

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