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By David Rooney on

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.