Hydrogen’s reluctant dissenter

After 40 years working on fuel cells Alfred Tseung would like to say the future is hydrogen – but talk of it is entirely premature, he told Rob Coppinger.

It would be going a little far to describe Alfred Tseung as a voice in the wilderness when it comes to the much-hyped ‘hydrogen economy’. But as an elder statesman of fuel cell research, he believes his voice deserves to be heard amid the clamour of those who insist that the future will come stamped with a big H symbol. There is no prospect of the widespread use of hydrogen cars – or the even the beginnings of the rise of the hydrogen economy – until at least the middle of the century, according to Tseung (pronounced Chung), a 40-year veteran of fuel cell research.

Tseung spoke to The Engineer at home where he was resting after an illness. The cosy suburban surroundings seemed at odds with the passion of his convictions over one of the world economy’s biggest challenges.

At a time when hydrogen dominates the ‘green car’ agenda, Tseung believes that there are still fundamental problems with the technology of fuel cells. Serious issues have yet to be resolved and talk of the development of hydrogen car engines is entirely premature.

Tseung’s frustration with the role of politicians, the green lobby and, to some extent, his fellow scientists for chasing empty dreams is obvious. He believes the failure to achieve any of those goals could undermine fuel cell research in the long term – he is particularly irked by what he regards as the hubris of the scientific community. ‘It has happened before, it has happened so many times,’ he said. ‘The trouble is you have a fresh generation of scientists who haven’t gone through the thing. They think they can [make fuel cells economic] and in reality you can’t.’

Tseung believes this stubborn adherence to the hydrogen dream has encouraged government and industry to demand solutions too quickly. The politics of environmental science and the energy industry have complicated the situation further, he claimed, and led to public relations becoming a major factor in companies’ choices over where to put their research money.

George Bush’s recently announced Freedom Car and fuel programme – a $1bn (£0.65bn) effort to bring about commercial hydrogen cars by 2020 – is also a wasted effort as far as Tseung is concerned. ‘The Americans are saying that they are going to spend $1bn. The difficulty there is you really need to do research to solve the existing problems about [fuel] cell life, activity and that sort of thing on a small scale – and make some fundamental breakthrough – before you go on to application of hardware.’

It will be obvious by now that Tseung has something of a bee in his bonnet over the hydrogen fuel cell issue. But this is no cranky personal crusade. He, of anyone, is certainly in a position to assess the true merits and potential of the fuel cell economy.

His academic career in this field spans three decades, and he currently holds professorial posts at the universities of Greenwich and Hong Kong and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

A former colleague, Prof David Griffiths, head of chemistry at the University of Essex, remembers a well-respected scientist. ‘He is an innovative figure, very much moving forward.’ And Tseung’s reputation was not confined to his own department, said Griffiths – he could win over those holding the purse strings of research funding.

‘He ran a successful research group under my department and generated a lot of money,’ said Griffiths. ‘That could be said to reflect the fact that his peers – who would judge these research applications – thought well of what he did and respected his work.’

But Tseung is no cloistered academic, and it is his experience of the wider world of business and policy that has shaped his views of the fuel cell debate.

For six years during the 1980s Tseung was the UK’s representative on the hydrogen committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Energy Agency. There he heard a lot of talk about the hydrogen economy, but saw little to convince him that anyone had the answers needed to wean the world off its oil dependency.

‘As long as we have cheap petrol that’s the preferred fuel,’ said Tseung. He believes that only in an economy without gasoline would hydrogen – which he admits is, in a perfect world, the ‘ideal fuel’ – become the answer. ‘Right now there are cheaper alternatives,’ said Tseung. ‘I would imagine that in the next 40 or 50 years you won’t see the hydrogen economy’.

Through his long involvement with fuel cell research Tseung has been on the sharp end of the failure of attempts to bring about widespread hydrogen use. Company after company, in his experience, has tried to realise hydrogen as a society-wide fuel, only to founder once government money ran out because fuel cells are basically uncompetitive. ‘I have seen a lot of firms start up, but the problem is none have made any money. They all lose money.’

Tseung added: ‘If there was no internal combustion engine then the fuel cell would be the thing. But because it’s not very cost effective – no matter what they say – the firms fail.’

At present Tseung only sees specialist applications in the military and space exploration as viable uses for the fuel cell. ‘If it is for military use it is possible, and for going into space it is definitely necessary. But for civilian use it is very tricky’.Apart from the economics of hydrogen versus petrol, what is Tseung’s root problem with the technology?

He believes there is a fundamental problem when it comes to making fuel cells work: the very nature of hydrogen itself. ‘Hydrogen is one of the lightest elements known, and to store it requires very heavy steel bottles – so heavy that each bottle would be roughly 120lb.’

That, said Tseung, could store enough hydrogen for only 10kW hours – sufficient to power a Mini for just one hour. ‘So then if you want to drive a Mini for three hours that’s about 360lb of bottle,’ he said.

The only success that Tseung identifies from decades of fuel cell research is the development of electrochemical sensors. Professionally speaking, he sees these sensors as the one major achievement of his discipline. Personally, he says it was his one big mistake because it could have made him a fortune. ‘The fuel cell technologies we have developed as electrochemical sensors are extremely good. I was involved in an electrochemical company called City Technology, which has gone to market with its product. And the value of the company is now over £100m. But I didn’t benefit because I decided not to work in the sensors area. I decided I preferred academia.’

This is not to imply that Tseung is completely negative about hydrogen. Through his work as a research professor he is still enthusiastically trying to solve the many problems of fuel cells. Tseung’s big idea is the use of methanol, which he sees as a much more practical route to the burning of hydrogen for energy.

‘There are two ways of using methanol. One is direct methanol oxidation, the other is through a reformer. A reformer is methanol plus steam and it would then give you a stream of pure hydrogen you can burn. But this option reduces the efficiency, and reforming methanol to get hydrogen still produces carbon monoxide.’

Because of these reformer issues Tseung prefers to focus on the direct methanol cell. It has great promise, he believes, although he is careful not to fall into the trap of claiming it as a panacea. ‘We have been working on catalysts that oxide methanol at about 120 degrees C, and that would work. But the trouble is that you would need to use precious metal catalysts mixed with other things. The major problem with those catalysts is that they will not last that long.’

His work goes on, and in the meantime Tseung has some forthright views on how society can take quick steps to reduce car pollution: miniaturise the internal combustion engine. As most trips are just a few miles Tseung thinks governments should give an incentive for small-engine cars by heavily taxing large-cc engines and encouraging people to take public transport for longer journeys.

‘Those higher taxes on large cars could then be diverted to look at alternatives such as battery power, and to consider fuel cells’ fundamental problems,’ he said.And for all his scepticism over hydrogen cars, after 40 years in research Tseung remains optimistic that the fuel cell’s day will come. He contrasts the technology with fusion power, another great hope requiring international co-operation, multibillion-dollar projects and even government treaties.

‘It is better than fusion power,’ he added. ‘Fuel cells you can demonstrate do actually work – but the major problem is and always has been the cost.’

For the record

Alfred Tseung was born in Hong Kong. He came to the UK in 1957 after studying ceramics at the South China Institute of Technology in Canton. He completed his Phd at Leeds University and began research into fuel cells in 1963.

Tseung spent seven years in industry working on fuel cells and the rest of his career in academia. In the 1980s he was the UK representative on the hydrogen committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Energy Agency. He is now research professor at Greenwich University and has been the Royal Society Kan Tang Po visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong since 1994. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.