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Hydrogen will clean up the planet and bees will check we’re doing it!

15th January 2020

Stephen Starkie, Group lead, software, at eg technology discusses cleaning up the planet

At the end of last year, I attended the Smart Cities and Urban Mobility summit at the London Design Centre and it wasn’t what I expected. I’ve heard stories about pollution monitoring, traffic flows, intelligent lighting and clean, sustainable public transport before, but this was a bit different.

For a start, I no longer want a Tesla! Jon Hunt of Toyota talked about the rise of electric vehicles, and what we need to do to break our dependence on fossil fuels, but his message was about a different future for the industry. While some companies have nailed their colours to pure plug-in electric vehicles and many are selling a mix of EVs, self-charging, and plug-in hybrids, Toyota, who were the first to sell hybrids commercially (the Prius) are sure that the future is hydrogen.

This isn’t the first time that this has been said and talk of the ‘hydrogen economy’ was all the rage a few years ago. That term is no longer liked by the industry, but while in the 1990s and early 2000s the message came with the fateful tag, “15 to 20 years away”, it now feels like a reality. Toyota introduced the Mirai in 2015 and while there are only a few thousand on the road and a handful of fuelling stations, it does now feel like the industry is making positive steps for real change. Hydrogen is safe, clean, energy dense and scalable. Elon Musk may have shot an electric car into space, but coming back down to earth, they feel like a stop gap. We don’t have enough lithium in the world to build them, they aren’t scalable, they take forever to charge, they are expensive, and they have a short range.

Simon Gallagher from eSmart Networks is also worried about the scalability of EVs and is planning for it.  eSmart provide electric vehicle charging solutions, workplace charging, and battery storage solutions, and Simon has significant experience in the systems that connect the national grid to your home and industry.  They want to put smart charging in people’s homes to distribute the load. A mixture of domestic storage (batteries) and connected grid-sharing will ensure that the load on supplies is spread through the night rather than melting the cables in the streets when everyone arrives home and plugs in. But he went a lot further; eSmart think that hydrogen is the future too. We currently use a lot of gas in our homes and we need to tackle this if we ever want to get close to Net Zero. We could use more sustainably generated electricity to replace our dependence on gas, but there might be a better way. Mixing hydrogen into our gas supplies is the first step, but this will only get us so far. Hydrogen isn’t very good for pipes, so only a certain amount can be added before we must change them. Once we start to change the pipes, we also need to change our boilers, and then we can start building hubs of pure hydrogen distribution which we can gradually scale up. When we do, we will also have a supply of hydrogen for our Toyota Mirai’s! It’s neat, it reuses some of our existing infrastructure and has other benefits. Could renewable energy sources such as wind and solar be used directly to electrolyse water and then pipe the hydrogen?

Maybe we don’t want cars at all? We all know that public transport, cycling and walking to work are supposed to be better for us and the environment, but could they be the solution to delivery services as well? Several companies Eskuta, vRbikesSwifty Scooters, Carryway, and PeddleSmart were showing off their solutions to the last mile problem - it seems to be electric scooters and bikes! Rather than send a van or truck into a city, send a cavalry of hipsters on electric gizmos pulling carts down cycle lanes. Or even better – robots. The promise is that they take less room and don’t pollute. I don’t know whether this is legal, or whether it will be so in future and I worry that it’s not really the point of cycle lanes, but bikes have worked quite well in the Netherlands and here in Cambridge, so who knows? As always, a combination of solutions is probably the answer.

So, if we can crack the clean energy problem, how do we measure whether we are succeeding? Canaries were the solution in the mines, but bees are the future for pollution measurement.

They have a range of several miles and go everywhere in the search for nectar, pollen, water and propolis (anything sticky that they use to glue their hives together). I talked to Gaetane Schaeken from Beeodiversity , a very innovative group who use bees to monitor pollutants. It’s a great idea; simple, effective and synergistic. As well as obvious sites in the countryside, hives can be put on top of buildings, and bees can forage in cities quite effectively. We all know that we should be doing our best to help bees, and if honey and the vital pollination service they provide isn’t enough to convince us, maybe helping us clean up the planet is?

It was a fascinating conference with plenty of space to meet some very interesting presenters and panellists. I came away feeling pretty upbeat about the amazing design innovation that is going into securing a cleaner, greener future. 

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