Fuel's gold

Manchester Metropolitan’s Fuel Cell Innovation Centre is at the forefront of developing clean and renewable energy solutions. Director Amer Gaffar sat down to discuss the industry backdrop with colleagues Dr Justyna Kulczyk-Malecka, post-doctoral research associate, and Dr Ian Madley, reader

Amer Gaffar (AG): Everywhere you look now there’s an opportunity to decarbonise, whether that’s cities, regions orc ountries.

In Manchester we have set ourselves a target of being net zero carbon by 2038.

Fuel cells and hydrogen will play a role within that as part of a number of other technologies.

What we need to do is almost create the market for fuel cells within this region because fuel cells can operate with a number of different fuels – it doesn’t have to be hydrogen.

You almost need fuel cells to be adopted using natural gas, which already exists, with the ability to be changed over at a time when more hydrogen is blended into the gas networks.

The two things we require most are energy and transportation.

The two things we require most are energy and transportation.

In terms of energy, we’re moving towards a new industrial revolution where we are going to require a lot more power and that power needs to be generated in a more decarbonised way.

The two solutions that are really going to fit that bill are either fuel cells or cleaner batteries.

Batteries require a lot more storage and space, and we can actually create a lot more energy with hydrogen and fuel cells in much smaller space and equipment.

Fuel cells can be used in very specific transport environments such as buses, lorries, passenger vehicles.

Battery electric vehicles are perfectly suitable if you’re doing limited range, but not if you need an extended range or have a larger fleet.

Dr Justyna Kulczyk-Malecka (JKM): There is always a problem with managing the weight of a battery electric car.

The weight of a battery needed to power a lorry would be extremely heavy equivalent to what you can get from the fuel cell.

That’s an extra bonus point for fuel cells, and applying fuel cells in larger vehicles probably provides a better solution than trying to put batteries in lorries.

Dr Ian Madley (IM): A battery car is about 20% heavier than the equivalent petrol or fuel cell model.

Multi-storey car parks are designed for current cars so either you have got to park a fifth less cars in them or you have to do a substantial amount of upgradingo f infrastructure to be able to park in the same space.

Coming back to what Amer was saying, you can effectively think in three contexts: we need electrical power for lighting and cooking, we need heat-related energy – either for warming or cooling buildings – and we need transport.

So far, in terms of decarbonisation, effectively all we’ve done is the electricity bit.

So we still have to focus on how do we decarbonise heat and the transport infrastructure.

The reason? I think partly it’s policy. For a long time the government believed that they could electrify everything and have only more latterly realised that that isn’t a solution.

The gas networks are already in the ground and the question is what do we put through it and how do we decarbonise it.

The answer, I think, is still a work in progress. Some of the projects I’ve been involved in look at mixing hydrogen into the methane of the existing gas system. The advantage is that you can do so without having to change anything.

AG: A number of different policy initiatives are supportive of hydrogen across the UK and every city region is developing some kind of a strategy.

The policy towards decarbonisation needs to work with incentives like feed-in tariffs.

Typically there has been government support for the uptake of renewable energy, like there has been in the past for solar and wind.

The uptake was heavily supported to get the market moving but these incentives have almost died away for these technologies.

It has been reported that in 2017 alone £100 million plus was paid out to wind turbine operators to park their turbines.

JKM: Instead we can use that electricity to create hydrogen, which can be compressed, stored or directly fed into a fuel cell to generate electricity again.

IM: The fundamental issue with electricity is you cannot store it. It’s a second-by-second balancing activity between the amount you generate and the amount you use.

Hydrogen is a good technology because there’s an existing infrastructure for transporting and storing it, and we know it works.

We haven’t been using hydrogen for the last 40 or 50 years and in that time, we fundamentally changed the technologies we use within the gas systems.

We’ve come from metal pipes to plastic pipes and in the days when we had towns gas virtually nobody had central heating.

Now you have combined heat andpower plants that just didn’t exist in the 1960s.

AG: I think we need to recognise neither technology, hydrogen or fuel cells, is new.

Globally there’s a lot of research being done and the difference with our centre, which is partially funded by the European Regional Development Fund, is that we work not only with our brilliant researchers, but also with businesses.

We have to work and create a sector within Greater Manchester that is buoyant in effectively trying to develop a hydrogen economy.

We work with organisations that areinvolved with the low carbon environmental goods sector, alternative fuels, building technologies, consultancies.

The centre’s offering evolves on a daily basis: we’re not just a research centre, we’re a centre that’s helping businesses and helping policymakers.

JKM: We have all sorts of research going on. How we built the Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre is by having a few research groups coming together from completely different backgrounds, not necessarily fuel cells experts.

You’ve got material scientists, a surface engineering group, and brilliant electrochemists that started talking together with the ethos of: if we start collaborating and putting ideas together, we can create something great.

It’s our strength and the Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre is unique because of that.

AG: And as an academic institution, skills are very high on our agenda.

We’ve got 19 years to reach Manchester’s net zero carbon target. How do we achieve that?

It’s not just through technology or by throwing money at solutions.

It’s through investing in our people. Part of the skills development that we are working on is not only creating the right graduates or creating the right skills for the sector to grow across the value chain, we are actually developing the skills via distributing an online content that will help people who adopt technology to understand what they’re using.

IM: Amer makes a very importantpoint. People aren’t necessarily interested in how things are done, they’re interested in the results they get from them.

You want a car that you can drive, you want a house that’s warm.

Whether that is done through a fuel cell or a battery needs to almost be in the background. But you then do need the skilled people who can make that happen.

AM: Policy is very important, but the policy needs to be informed by people like ourselves.

You can’t have a standard policy across the UK.

This is why the collaboration with all of the industrial sector and policy makers is important because we’re effectively writing the strategy together.

We’re convening everyone, providing the expertise and saying: what doyou want in the strategy? What do you want the strategy to do?

IM: You’ve also got to think about the sort of underpinning infrastructure and how that is going to be delivered.

We have a fundamental difference between what we need for the stationary type fuel cells that run hot versus what we need to be able to deliver to run a cold fuel cell that you would use in a vehicle.

You need different levels of purity within the gas streams, and that’s one of the areas where you’re going to see the biggest impact and change.

AM: Yes, we relate policy to science, but the fundamentalmissing link here is the economics.

It’s the economics ofeach project that makes them goforward.

In the centre, we’re workingwith the University’s Future Economies team to develop a number of PhD research areas, such as the future price of hydrogen as a gas or as a transport fuel.

Hydrogen as a clean transport fuel isn’t taxed like petrol or diesel and we know that something has to replace the tax because that’s what helps funds the infrastructure projects.

Electrification is pretty much the global solution. But complete electrification isn’t going to work. 

If we electrified every mode of transport within Greater Manchester alone, our lights wouldn’t be on because the grid hasn’t increased in its capacity over the years.

What they are doing is managing the existing grid and so we need to work with the operators to put a sizeable fuel cell or electrolyser into the network to take away some of the strain from the grid.

Once we’ve got a number o fthese mini-projects kick-started I think we’ll be at the tipping point.

None of this will come cheap and that’s the political problem we haven’t yet grasped.

IM: I would say mixing hydrogen into the normal gas supply, where you don’t have to change anything, will be pretty standard by the middle of the 2020s.

This has to tie-in to reducing the demand for energy and retrofitting houses to make them more efficient.

None of this will come cheap and that’s the political problem we haven’t yet grasped.

The government hasn’t stood up and said: not decarbonising is not an option.

AM: There are a number ofblocks that need to put together: government support is needed.

The industry is not stopping in terms of innovation and needs to respond to climate change, and end users need to react.

Climate change is an issue and we recognise that we can’t work alone.