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March 2021

The ‘hydrogen economy’ is highly topical as the world tries to decarbonise. In this month’s blog we look back at the Welsh lawyer, engineer and scientist who can justifiably be called the founder of hydrogen power and follow the circuitous route to the adoption of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel…….

And if you are interested in finding out more about the topic of this blog piece have a listen to the Freakonomics podcast - "In the 1890s, the Best-Selling Car Was … Electric"


William Robert Grove (1811-1896) grew up in Swansea at a time when the city was at the heart of the industrial revolution, processing most of the world’sBlog - hydrogen cars Grove.png copper and extracting many other metals, including arsenic, zinc, tin, gold, and silver from ores shipped from across the globe. The technical power of these metallurgical pioneers clearly left its mark on Grove for whilst he trained as a lawyer following his attendance at Brasenose College, Oxford, he soon diverted his attentions to scientific research. His work on electro-chemistry and his broader consideration of thermodynamics led to ground-breaking discoveries of profound significance. For example, in 1846 he published a paper – ‘On the Correlation of Physical Forces’, in which he described the principle of conservation of energy, a year before the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz did so in his now famous paper – ‘On the Conservation of Force’. Grove was an inventor as well as a theorist and in 1839 he developed a novel form of electric cell that used zinc and platinum electrodes exposed to sulphuric and nitric acids, separated by a porous ceramic pot. This became known as the Grove cell and was a widely used power source in the nascent electrical power industry, being used for instance to power the American telegraph system. Experimenting further with gaseous systems led to the development of his gas voltaic battery – the first fuel cell, which produced electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen. He described its operation using his own correlation theory, showing that steam could be converted into oxygen and hydrogen and was the first person to demonstrate the thermal dissociation of molecules into their constituent atoms. Grove’s device involved two platinum electrodes, one end of which was immersed in sulfuric acid whilst the other ends were sealed containers of oxygen and hydrogen gas. This cell generated a constant current flow between the electrodes, thus providing electrical power from gas fuels.

At the same time as William Grove was developing his gas battery, two Italian inventors were also investigating the chemical energy available from hydrogen. Father Eugenio Barsanti, a Tuscan priest and engineer, together with Felice Matteucci of Florence exploited the explosive power of hydrogen mixed with air, to realise mechanical motion through expansion of the exploding gases within the enclosed chamber of a piston cylinder. The creation of a vacuum in the space underneath the piston allowed return to its original position due to atmospheric pressure. The piston motion turned a toothed rod connected to a sprocket wheel and transmitted movement to a driving shaft. The patent for their invention for ‘Obtaining Motive Power by the Explosion of Gasses’ was granted in London, in 1854. This was the first demonstration of an internal combustion engine and its evolution to one of the most important inventions of any age was rapid - in 1879, Karl Benz patented a two-stroke engine using gasoline instead of hydrogen and in 1901 the Henry Ford motor company was formed. Thus, the early promise of hydrogen as a fuel for vehicle locomotion was not fulfilled as the difficulty of handling gases meant that liquid hydrocarbons became the fuel of choice. Despite the fact that hydrogen has a higher energy density than gasoline.

Blog - hydrogen cars Thrust 2.pngThe new gasoline-powered vehicles were quick and the quest to achieve ever faster speed records soon became established. In 1904, Henry Ford was already pushing performance to 91 mph on the frozen waters of Lake St. Clair in Michigan, it was another 30 years before the first steam train surpassed this speed when the Flying Scotsman achieved 100 mph in 1934. In Wales this pursuit of speed centred on the long open sands of Pendine beach in Carmarthenshire and for a while was led by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas, a Welsh engineer and motor-racing enthusiast. He was born in Wrexham and studied engineering at The City and Guilds College in London. Blog - hydrogen cars CFD.jpgHe was highly successful in his career becoming chief engineer at Leyland Motors and creating many patents in the fields of electrical and automotive engineering. He had a passion for motor racing and in 1920 gave up his career with Leyland to become a full-time motor-racing driver and engineer. In April 1926 despite poor weather conditions and soft, wet sand, Parry-Thomas created a new land speed record of 172 mph. Tragically, Parry-Thomas was killed in a crash at Pendine Sands just one year later, while trying to regain his own world land speed record that had been broken just weeks earlier by Malcolm Campbell on the same beach. Today the land speed record stands at 760 mph and Welsh engineers are still involved. In 1997 ThrustSSC created the current record at Black Rock desert in the United States, powered by two Rolls-Royce aero engines. In the record attempt the car became the first to break the speed of sound. Many of the design elements of the vehicle were developed using computational modelling by engineers in the Zienkiewicz research centre of Swansea University.

Blog - hydrogen cars Gilbern.jpgWales also has a history of engineering creativity and ingenuity applied at a more egalitarian level to create original cars for mass consumption. The Gilbern sports car in the 1960’s, first sold as a kit car to avoid VAT, and was designed and built in an old slaughterhouse behind the butcher’s shop of Giles Smith in Church Village, Pontypridd. This called for innovative and creative engineering, and flexible thinking - a pear tree had to be cut down to get the first car out of the workshop. Smith had no experience of building cars but was taken up by the popular 1950’s hobby of creating ‘specials’ – customised DIY cars based on pre-war Ford 10s and Austin Sevens. Giles partnered with Bernard Friese, a German ex POW who was living in Bridgend and had worked for a coachbuilder using glass fibre construction. The Gilbern name came from the combination of the first three letters of the founders’ names. The 948 cc, 36 hp engine car proved to be extremely popular and production of fully built cars was launched in 1961 at the old Red Ash Colliery at Llantwit Fardre. Over 1,000 of these cult-classics were made between 1959-1973, they remain much sought after and the original 1961 price of £978 has risen to a second-hand value of over £12,000.

Blog - hydrogen cars Riversimple.pngThe manufacturing tradition for innovative cars of bespoke design continues to this day with Riversimple, a company based in Llandrindod Wells, who produce the Rasa hydrogen car. Their aim is: ‘To pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport’. The car is powered by an 8.5 kW hydrogen fuel cell, working in tandem with super-capacitors which store recycled energy when braking or release it to achieve rapid acceleration. The Rasa has an acceleration from 0 to 60 in just 9.5 seconds and a range of 300 miles. The production ethos of the company extends beyond creation of the vehicle itself to encompass the wider sustainability of the manufacturing process. Working in partnership with Swansea University and the University of Exeter, Riversimple has created the Circular Revolution - a business-led hub focused on circular thinking. This £2.3m project is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government and aims to develop sustainability in West Wales, the Valleys and beyond and help build the Green economy.

The current explosion of research and development of electric and hydrogen powered cars is clearly driven by environmental concerns. After 150 years of using internal combustion engines which produce exhaust carbon we urgently need to engineer zero carbon alternatives. This need for sustainable locomotive power based on batteries and fuel cells speaks to the legacy of William Grove whose pioneering inventions of the early 19th century created this technology field. It also reminds us of fundamental physical laws that Grove would have been acutely aware of, given his understanding of the profound nature of thermodynamics. He was the first to elucidate the principle of conservation of energy and this is writ large in the process of planetary heating driven by the absorbtion of infra-red radiation by atmospheric carbon molecules.