We’re losing the race for the car of the future

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There’s a better alternative to oil than batteries. And Germany is way ahead in developing it

Fantastic news: by 2015 you will be able to buy a reasonably priced family car that runs entirely on hydrogen. It will look normal, be swift and silent, have a range of about 270 miles and emit only water. Its fuel is plentiful and will generate power with a small fuel cell, in which a chemical reaction produces electricity. Nasty 19th-century internal combustion will be out; pure 21st-century electrochemistry in.

The only hitch is that you will have to be German or Japanese to buy one. Yet again the UK is about to have its backside whipped in the race for the future. We discovered it and worked on it for years, but choked when it came to putting proper money on the table.

We have been here before. For years after Alan Turing developed the machine that would see him crowned the father of computer science, we competed well with the Americans. As usual, though, it was a garden-shed and university-lab affair — amateurs and academics pursuing their own obsessions. Industry and government looked on benignly and did little. Eventually some self-propelled pioneers emerged, with Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry in the forefront, the latter starting Acorn (the “British Apple”, which briefly dominated the educational market in the 1980s).

Then it all went pear-shaped. The Americans and Japanese pulled ahead. They saw it clearly, while most of us didn’t — the future, that is. Did we care? Of course not, house prices were rising.

Now we are again in the middle of a similar pursuit, this time for the future of world energy. The Germans are already way out in front. Where are the British? About to be lapped.

Teutonic resolve is especially marked in one of the most competitive parts of the energy race: the global car market. Everyone sane (even Jeremy Clarkson) recognises that the internal combustion engine must be phased out. The more prescient carmakers and governments have quietly invested billions in developing alternatives.

Electric propulsion is, of course, the solution. But there is a divide about how to store and release the power: battery or hydrogen?

With a battery, you charge it up and off you go. Perfect for town, where short, frequent journeys are the norm. But there is a teeny problem: instant refuelling. Battery technology is advancing and recharging time falling substantially. But the imminent mass- production electric cars take between six and ten hours to charge. Given a high enough voltage, this could come down to as little as ten minutes. But you need industrial-scale power supplies.

For the hydrogen car this is not a problem; you fill up exactly as you do with a petrol car. Don’t get me wrong, there are problems with hydrogen too. The main one is that it is pretty inefficient — it takes more energy to produce than it produces as fuel. But if we use renewable energy to make the hydrogen in the first place, is this still an issue? Wind, wave, biomass can all be used to produce clean hydrogen. Bank-busting, ash-spewing Iceland has started to harness all that free geothermal power, aiming to be a hydrogen Saudi Arabia by 2060.

“But what about the Hindenberg?” Well, the one thing you can relax about is safety. That airship probably blew up in 1937 because it had been coated with lacquer made from rocket fuel. Anyway hydrogen is less flammable than petrol, and when it does ignite it doesn’t hang around. Being lighter than air, it burns and disperses quickly.

The Germans are going for hydrogen in a big way. The Federal Government is spending €2 billion installing a refuelling network across the country, and their car manufacturers have agreed to start mass production of fuel cell vehicles in 2015. The Japanese are not far behind, and the Californians are a close third, enthusiastically propelled by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a hydrogen visionary.

The British response has been feeble. Despite having a large vehicle manufacturing sector, leading the world in Formula One engineering, and having globally renowned hydrogen and fuel cell research labs, we have done nearly nothing.

There are some pockets of activity. In London (I declare an interest) we are building six hydrogen refuelling stations and aim to have 120 vehicles in operation for 2012. We will have five hydrogen buses in the capital this autumn. And there are pioneering British companies in the field. Intelligent Energy, based in the Midlands, produced the world’s first hydrogen black cab this year. As usual, academics and amateurs are bravely stepping forward, but compared with the Germans, we look like Dad’s Army.

Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, has promised an energy policy with “real direction and purpose”. He has yet to mention hydrogen, but let’s hope the new Government will repatriate a technology that we have almost allowed to slip through our fingers.