The nuclear car?

Viewers of Top Gear last weekend will have seen James May road-testing what he called ‘the most important car since cars were invented’, the Honda FCX Clarity.

Viewers of Top Gear last weekend will have seen James May — one of our interview subjects this year and a former sub-editor of The Engineer — road-testing what he called ‘the most important car since cars were invented’, the Honda FCX Clarity.

The first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car (but only if you live in California), the Clarity can do 280 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, takes a couple of minutes to refuel, and performs just like a standard petrol-driven saloon. ‘This is the future of motoring,’ May said, ‘because it’s exactly like the past of motoring.’

But although May mentioned in his road test that the fuel cell produces only water as its exhaust, you had to wait until the studio chat after his filmed segment for him to point out the drawback: where does the hydrogen come from? He pointed out, in layman’s terms, that although hydrogen is superabundant, it tends to be stuck very firmly to other things and it’s tricky to separate it out. ‘But surely,’ he said, ‘it can’t be much harder than getting oil out of the ground.’

Well, up to a point, James. As we point out regularly, fuel cells are zero-emission in operation — making the hydrogen is another matter entirely. Make it by steam-reforming methane and you’re also producing carbon dioxide, from the process itself and from generating the heat for the process. Electrolyse it from brine and, well, you’re going to use a lot of power, and that has to come from somewhere. If you’re burning fossil fuels to generate that electricity, then you’re not reducing the emissions from transport at all. You’re just shifting the problem.

Quite a difficult task, then, and certainly comparable to oil extraction and refining. But it does make us wonder. There is a reliable source of electricity that doesn’t produce emissions and it’s very much in the news, although for some reason nobody’s linked it to hydrogen production. Nuclear power must surely be a logical choice for generating power for electrolysis? Is this, we’re thinking, the unspoken factor in the resurgence of nuclear power and various governments’ keenness to increase its contribution to the energy mix?

At the Nuclear Industry Association’s recent Energy Choices conference in London, the atmosphere was remarkably bullish. While many other engineering sectors are looking nervously at the state of the economy, nuclear operators were cheerfully announcing alliances with engineering firms and talking about planning enquiries and possible plant capacities. The contrast with last year’s event was striking; while that conference was dominated by concerns over public approval and influencing government policy, this year’s event had the air of ‘job done, now let’s get to work’.

It does seem inevitable that nuclear power will get the go-ahead; site selection is now underway, and there are already firm plans for six power stations of the EPR design favoured by EDF. But while the now-familiar arguments in favour of nuclear power were aired again — energy security, reduced emissions — there was no mention of hydrogen production.

As James May said, the hydrogen economy is going to happen, at some point in the probably near future and in some form. We know that oil companies are looking at ways to introduce hydrogen into their petrol station network, which will solve the infrastructure gap. But generating the hydrogen is still a missing part of the jigsaw. Are there plans to integrate nuclear power into the supply chain? Will nuclear become the primary source of automotive power, as well as base-load electricity? The issues around power and transport are complex and that would make them more complex still. It’s a question worth asking.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor