Hydrogen and nuclear – should we be scared?

Posted on 21 Sep 2012

A nuclear submarine and a hydrogen factory, two things that you may think would flash danger in big shiny red letters. TM's Kimberley Barber talks about visits to the factories of BAE Systems and Air Products.

When you think “nuclear”, what is the first thing that come to mind?

Nuclear war, perhaps? The end of the world, super powers wielding the unspoken ability to wipe out populations at a push of the button?

Now think about hydrogen… the Hindenburg disaster, mind-boggling physics lessons, dramatic explosions?

TM reporter Kimberley Barber in the Commanders chair onboard Ambush
TM reporter Kimberley Barber in the Commanders chair onboard Ambush

Clearly, nuclear and hydrogen power are not without fault and risk. But dwindling natural resources is pushing science to make more sources of energy commercially viable.

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Barrow-in-Furness and climbing aboard BAE Systems’ new nuclear submarine Ambush before she set off on her first sea trials. The incredible capabilities of this submarine are just simply astounding. The subs motto ‘Hide and Seek’ seemed a fitting title for a vessel that can circumnavigate the globe and disappear beneath the waves without a need to surface for months, even years.

The fact she is able to do this is down to nuclear technology enabling her to create fresh water from the sea and make her own oxygen. Yes, there are incredible tomahawk missiles too, but they seemed to be something of a sideline (as it is hoped they are never used). Her main job is that of surveillance, from the English Channel Ambush can hear a boat leaving New York and her engine is so quiet that she is virtually undetectable by other vessels.

It is a case of social acceptability and fear. There are often comparisons between the risk of alcohol compared to other drugs but its acceptance by the masses removes any fear. Think about how flammable petrol is and the number of accidents involved. Would you really be so sure about driving around at 70mph with a tank full of it if it had just been discovered and entered?

TM's Kimberley Barber at Air Product's CY04 hydrogen plant
TM's Kimberley Barber at Air Product's CY04 hydrogen plant

One week later and I have a hard hat on for a different reason. This time I was being shown around Air Products’ HyCO4 hydrogen factory in Spijkinisse, Rotterdam.

Air Products believe they have the answer to cutting emissions. They are at the forefront of developing a hydrogen infrastructure and recently hit the headlines as they powered a fleet of taxis that ferried some big names around during the Olympics.

There were a few hiccups with this service, which was picked up on by the press who gleefully reported on these failings in the way your big sister would gloat if you came second on sports day.

In the grand scheme of things, this fleet of five taxis were a pioneering step in getting the message of hydrogen fuelled vehicles into the public domain. Celebrities and VIPs travelled around London in black cabs fuelled by hydrogen. None of them blew up. None of them broke down. None of them ran out of hydrogen.

During my visit to Spijkinisse, a group of us travelled to the factory in a bus powered by hydrogen. The bus, the first of its kind, had cost a whopping £1m and surprisingly, was just like travelling on a normal bus in any other town. The only notable exceptions were the silence of the engine, no loud roar when the driver put his foot down, just a pleasant ringing of a bell every time the bus moved off from stationary position to notify everybody of the buses intention.

A public bus powered by hydrogen
The Dutch bus powered by hydrogen

This hydrogen bus is powered by green hydrogen and emits only purified water, holding the power to drastically reduce a city’s emissions if a whole fleet were in operation.

In 2011 London introduced a fleet of five of these buses to travel between Covent Garden and Tower Gateway. These buses are powered from hydrogen produced by Air Products at the HyCO4 plant and this July the fuelling station at Stratford had performed over 1,000 refuellings, enabling the buses to travel approximately 100,000 miles without even a whiff of nasty carbon emissions.

On the way to the hydrogen factory, the guide said over the tannoy: “People are always asking me how I have the courage to travel in the Hindenberg bus?” And that’s one of the main hurdles companies like Air Products will have to overcome.

A lack of public knowledge can lead to something as revolutionary as hydrogen taking longer than it should to take off. That’s why I think it’s great that Transport for London are supporting the development of a hydrogen infrastructure by being brave enough to invest in hydrogen powered vehicles.

What were my main learnings of my two very different experiences of nuclear and hydrogen? That these things are not something to be scared of. They both have the capabilities to tackle something of a far scarier nature, something that may kill us all – carbon emissions.