Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=1971-476

Riding the hydrogen highway

This BBC News story landed in my inbox the other day, thanks to Peter at our Wiltshire site, near Swindon. It’s about government plans to designate the M4 motorway, between Wales and London via Swindon, as a ‘hydrogen highway’.

'To York' poster showing highwayman Dick Turpin, 1934 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Putting aside my mental image of an explosive Dick Turpin, I find it’s all about refuelling. Alternatives to petrol and diesel vehicles are being developed, but each needs a different type of energy source, and the infrastructure isn’t there to provide it.

The ‘hydrogen highway’ plan is to create multi-fuel filling stations along the M4 to jump-start the process.

Ford 'Comuta' electric car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Electric vehicles are one key area for development. I’ve spoken about them quite a bit already. Their range is small and they take ages to recharge, but at least there’s already a nationwide electricity grid.

Biofuels like biodiesel are another option, and some can use existing delivery pipelines.

The real problem comes with compressed gases such as hydrogen, used in fuel cell vehicles to generate electricity. It’s distinctly tricky to store, transport and use.

DAF 44 experimental fuel cell car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

An even bigger problem is making it in the first place. It’s mostly made from non-renewable natural gas, or by splitting water using electricity. Where does that electricity come from? Burning coal, mostly.

Delivering coal to Didcot power station, 1973 (NRM / Science & Society)

It’s a complex business. I recently finished reading Stewart Brand‘s latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, in which he dissects the complicated world of climate and environment. I urge you to read it.

Electric vehicles

My colleague Peter Turvey, senior curator at our Wroughton site, brought to my attention the BMW MINI E, an electric version of the famous small car I talked about in an earlier post. It’s going to be trialled in south-west England this autumn and, if successful, may join the likes of the curiously-shaped G-Wiz electric car on our streets.

Electric cars sound like the height of modernity, but in fact they have a far longer history than you might imagine. In fact, they’ve been around as long as the petrol motor car, and actually out-sold petrol cars in the USA in the early twentieth century. Then, as now, they were easy-to-drive, clean, quiet and relatively vibration-free.

We’ve got some very interesting early battery-powered vehicles in the Science Museum’s collections. Our Bersey electric taxicab (London’s first self-propelled taxi) dates from 1897:

Bersey electric cab, 1897 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Bersey electric cab, 1897 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This 1904 Krieger is rather luxurious – and still works:

Krieger electric car, 1904 (Science Museum)

Krieger electric car, 1904 (Science Museum)

Our more recent electric vehicles include a 1930s delivery van (from a well-known grocery store), and a Ford ‘Comuta’ car from 1967, which reminds me very much of the G-Wiz:

Harrods electric delivery van, 1930s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Harrods electric delivery van, 1930s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ford Comuta car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ford 'Comuta' car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The problem was, and is, the batteries: the range of an electric car is very short compared to that of a petrol car with a full tank. The electric car is heavy, and its top speed is relatively low. But that isn’t necessarily a big deal for most urban driving, and it brings the enormous benefit of reduced local emissions in heavily-populated areas. 

I await the MINI trial results with great interest!