Totally clean bus service on way

A Cambridge University project to set up a completely sustainable bus service based on solar power and fuel cells is expected to get the go ahead next month.

In December, the European Commission should approve a £2m grant for the project, known as USHER, or Urban integrated Solar to Hydrogen Energy Realisation. It will use 3,500 solar cells to generate power for a fuel station which will split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen will be used to power at least one bus, which will run from the project’s research site to Cambridge city centre.

Colin Saunders of the university, who will be the project’s manager, said: ‘The European Commission’s assessment group gave our project a mark of 88% and recommended that it got the maximum amount of support possible. Since then we have been in the contract negotiation process and have jumped through various hoops. It’s as certain as we think it can be.’

He added: ‘The scheme will be an operational demonstration of areas of technology that are under research within the university. These include photovoltaic cells, gas storage, fuel cells and the technology to control the emerging systems. It will raise global interest.’

Saunders expects the design work to be in progress by March next year, with the fuel station being built in June. The bus service is expected to be operating by September 2003.

The advantage of hydrogen as a fuel is that its only waste by-product is water vapour.

But because hydrogen is normally generated by the electrolysis of water, if conventional polluting power sources are used to generate the electricity forthis process the benefits of hydrogen as a clean fuel are undermined.

With the energy for electrolysis coming from the sun, that potential problem is removed. The fuel station will generate 300kW from its solar cells, enough for electrolysis and the compression of the hydrogen for use in the bus’s fuel cells.The European funding comes from the Fifth Framework programme for scientific research. The programme views reduced carbon energy generation and transport as a priority for the EU.

If the grant gets final approval the research will be undertaken by a partnership between the University of Cambridge, consulting engineer Whitby Bird and Partners and the Swedish municipality of Gotland.

The fuel station will be set up on the the university’s west Cambridge site. A similar project will be carried out on the island of Gotland, where an array of photovoltaic cells will replace the roofs of a number of municipal buildings.

Beginning two months after the Cambridge project, the Swedish research will be in Visby, a world heritage city where there is demand for totally clean transport to protect the city’s medieval wall. Gotland is aiming for a completely sustainable society by the year 2025.