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| Hydrogen-powered buses in actionThree hydrogen-powered buses have been carrying passengers on the streets of Reykjavik for more than two years as part of a European demonstration project called ECTOS. The buses use a public hydrogen fuelling station, located in a petrol station forecourt. The project studied the technical feasibility of using hydrogen as a transport fuel in a real-life situation. It also tested the response of the Icelandic public, which was overwhelmingly positive.
Fuel cells generate electricity from the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Instead of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, vehicles that use them emit nothing but water vapour. The downside is that it takes energy to make the hydrogen they need. Hydrogen can be made by electrolysis, where electricity is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Then, overall carbon dioxide emissions depend on how that electricity is generated. In Iceland, where the national grid is entirely renewable, from hydro and geothermal energy, hydrogen offers the chance of a zero–emission fuel economy, unique in the world.
The buses arrived in Reykjavik six months later. They are part of an expanding fleet of 36 fuel cell buses in operation worldwide, many as part of another European project known as CUTE. They are prototypes – the fuel-cell-drive technology is being tested around the world, including in Beijing, China and Perth, Australia, to see how well it functions under real conditions. In Reykjavik, the three buses represent 4% of the city’s public bus fleet.
During the following two years, they clocked up 90 000 kilometres. The buses performed well, comparing favourably in power and acceleration with diesel vehicles. The cost of their service and maintenance was carefully monitored, for comparison with conventional buses. “At the moment, the operating costs are out of the range of commercial profitability,” explained Skulason, “but the technology will become cheaper as it is refined and mass-produced.” And there were very positive results. “The vehicles needed less maintenance than anyone expected,” he continued. “They were available for 80% of the time, which is extremely good.”
ECTOS carried out an environmental analysis of the hydrogen buses in operation to see how efficiently they used their fuel. Their efficiency over the whole fuel chain was not optimal. The buses were designed for durability, not fuel efficiency. Studies showed that efficiency could be improved using the same equipment, if the buses operated for six or seven days at a time, raising the demand for hydrogen so that the station could generate hydrogen continuously for several weeks at a time.
Technical lessons were learned about operating hydrogen transport and infrastructure. For example, the metal pipes used to carry hydrogen at the filling station were not ideal at first and fatigue was detected at weak spots. The material has now been refined. “The future hydrogen world will benefit very much from this kind of research,” claimed Skulason.
The ECTOS project generated interest from all over the world, with television crews coming from as far away as Korea, China and America to film the buses in action. But what happens now? The European Commission strongly supports the development of cleaner vehicles, especially heavy-duty and public vehicles, and sees hydrogen buses as part of a solution to the problems of city air pollution and rising oil prices. The three ECTOS buses will be on the roads in Reykjavik for another 12 months, in continued trials as part of Hy-FLEET CUTE, a new European project that will run hydrogen buses in seven cities until 2009. After this, they will become obsolete. “What we have learnt from these trials will feed back to the companies developing the technology, both for filling stations and the vehicles themselves,” said Skulason. “We look forward to a new generation of vehicles which are better, cheaper and will bring us one step closer to the full commercialisation of hydrogen-powered vehicles.”