What’s special about a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

At Riversimple we think of hydrogen as an energy carrier not a fuel.

Petrol and diesel are primary fuels – you can dig them out of the ground – but if you think of hydrogen as a fuel you can make the wrong choices. In the past, some car companies invested a lot of time and money designing cars that burned hydrogen. Due to the quantity of gas required, the engineers also experimented with super-cooled liquid hydrogen, but there were numerous problems and the designs were dropped at a fairly early stage, mostly without reaching the market.

The fuel cell system being fitted into the Mark2 Alpha

The fuel cell system being fitted into the Mark2 Alpha

Our car does not burn hydrogen.
And it doesn’t burn petrol either. It has been developed to run on the power provided by hydrogen fuel cell technology and that’s a very different matter. The discovery of the hydrogen fuel cell is credited to a Welshman named William Grove. Back in 1839, Grove was experimenting with electrolysis. It’s a well-known process today, in which you pass a current of electricity through water to get hydrogen and oxygen. Grove noticed that when he turned off the electric current, there was a reverse flow – in other words hydrogen was reacting with oxygen to generate electricity.

This discovery was not really taken up until the 50s and 60s when NASA was working on the Apollo space program. They developed a ‘Proton Exchange’ membrane through which Hydrogen and Oxygen are catalyzed to create electricity – and this is the basis of the hydrogen PEM fuel cell. The new technology was adopted and developed because of the high efficiency and high energy density it brought to the space program.
The hydrogen fuel cell produces a small amount of water but no harmful emissions, which means it also has enormous potential in terms of addressing climate change and eliminating pollution. At Riversimple we are proud to say that our new hydrogen car has zero emissions at the tail pipe – but even accounting for the energy to generate the hydrogen, it is still less than half the emissions of anything available today.

Testing at the Royal Welsh Showground

Testing at the Royal Welsh Showground

This October we took the hydrogen Alpha Mk2 for her first test-drive.

The test team: Andre Bird – previously worked in F1 racing and also spent a number of years flying for the Royal Family – now running the workshop at Riversimple; Dr. Nico Sergent – powertrain architect; Bill Whyman – R&D technician; Martin Stevens – senior software engineer, previously worked for aerospace; and Martin Stevens Junior, Riversimple’s test driver

“It felt very futuristic – a very smooth drive” recalls Martin Stevens Junior, the man to turn the key. This is what is special about a hydrogen fuel cell. It is very futuristic – it allows a complete rethink of the car, in response to climate change, in meeting modern needs. When you see the new Riversimple car, complete with yet-to-be-revealed outer shell, you’ll see what we mean.