Curiosity of fuel cell craftsmen at Johnson Matthey and automobile industry commitment at Honda

After the breakfast workshop in Bristol we visited two further fully rewarding fuel cell industry centered events in Swindon, along the hydrogen corridor from Swansea to London.

The first stop was a short but intense one at Johnson Matthey, where in full sunshine three out of the seven fuel cell vehicles (Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai) lined up to be checked out in detail by the 130 or so employees. Even the reception personnel left their job to have a close at the look at the vehicles for which Johnson Matthey has been producing membrane electrode assemblies for many years. Reading from the excited faces of the staff, the hands-on exercise with some limited test driving, due to the time constraints that day, was very well accepted and a full success.

The outside part of the meeting followed a short introduction by Johnson Matthey’s fuel cell  activity CEO Jack Frost, welcoming the H2moves Scandinavia Road Tour delegation and the project coordinator Ulrich Bünger of Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik, who briefly introduced the congregation into the EU Road Tour and the positive Scandinavian hydrogen project experience. Also Richard Bruce, Director of OLEV (Office for Low Emission Vehicles in the UK Government) and Chair of the national UK H2 Mobility scheme welcomed the guests and reflected on understanding the evidence that the support provided by the UK government to the UK fuel cell and hydrogen industry is a full success paying back UK industry contribution to fuel cell vehicles as commercial products soon to enter World markets.

The UK H2 Mobility initiative had its meeting at the Johnson Matthey facility the same day and joined in on the test drives.

The UK H2 Mobility initiative had its meeting at the Johnson Matthey facility the same day and joined in on the test drives.

It was a warm and an exciting welcome when the H2mS delegation landed with the fuel cell vehicles in the middle of a curious crowd of fuel cell industry family members. It was even more exciting as the UK H2 Mobility initiative, preparing the commercial roll out of a UK hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, had its meeting at the Johnson Matthey facility that day and joined the testdrives and fuel cell vehicle “parking lot inspection”.

After this one hour excursion the delegation of three vehicles joined the other four fuel cell cars which had already proceeded to the Honda factory in Swindon for filming purposes, only a few miles from Johnson Matthey down the hydrogen corridor to London. At the BOC-operated refuelling station all cars where refuelled, the cars were test driven extensively under close observation and with participation of the press and a lunch seminar was organised.

Presentations comprised one by the UK Government-funded Technology Strategy Board, by Forward Swindon (a regional industry association), and by the H2moves Scandinavia project culminated in a lively VIP panel discussion which highlighted numerous strong messages both from policymakers and industry.

The regional representatives pointed out the strong momentum for technical innovation, i.e. the role of the area as UK’s “silicon valley’, which could render it relevant for the further implementation of fuel cells and hydrogen. A clear questionmark was attached to the future role of oil industry in the topic, instead many new opportunities, such as injection of hydrogen to the natural gas grid were pointed out. It was suggested to develop and “keep project plans ready” for the very moment of relevant calls for funding. In connection with this, the FCH JU representative also pointed at a new funding opportunity with a call coming up in January 2013 as combining European and national funds had turned out as specifically valuable for the H2moves Scandinavia project.

Industry clearly answered the question on the chicken and egg dilemma (cars or infrastructure first?) that both need to be developed in parallel. Japan, the U.S. and Europe were pointed out as early commercial markets, and here specifically in Germany, in the UK (London) and Switzerland. One manufacturer specifically mentioned its responsibility to provide 1,000 fuel cell vehicles until 2015 to foster fuelling station utilization in a period when few other fuel cell vehicles are available at large scale.

However, hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines were only seen as ‘proto-chicken’ by the large-scale manufacturers as they unanimously believed that (a) a game change in efficiency is required, (b) fuel cells can be developed to competitive levels in short time (no bridge technology required until 2015) and (c) hydrogen internal combustion engines are posed to have principal technical disadvantages which could pose an economic threat to industry (e.g. the reliability typically suffers from water in engine oil and high engine pressures).

Industry jointly communicated that specifically the achievability of competitive cost levels is what makes them believe that a hydrogen based energy system can be reached in due time.

See a video from the event in Swindon!