AutoblogGreen Q&A: Jonathan Williams and the hydrogen minibus (EVS23 preview)

One of the technologies that will be covered at next week's EVS23 in Anaheim will be a prototype minibus that is powered by a tribrid system (that is, the bus uses hydrogen fuel cells, lead acid batteries and ultracapacitors). The bus project is managed by Jonathan Williams at the University of Glamorgan, and he recently spoke to AutoblogGreen for our latest podcast. Here is the transcript of our conversation. There is also a press release on the bus at the end of the Q&A.

Sebastian: All right. This is Sebastian. I am on the phone with Jonathan Williams who is a lecturer at the University of Glamorgan.

Jonathan: Correct.

Sebastian: That is a university in Wales and Jonathan, hello to you.

Jonathan: Hello, Sebastian.

Sebastian: Jonathan is the developer of a hydrogen fuel cell minibus that was unveiled and has been on display in the UK earlier this fall and you will be coming to the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Anaheim, California next week to describe this technology to the people in the industry and you have agreed to give AutoblogGreen readers and listeners a bit of a preview of that event and talk to us about this hydrogen bus so thank you very much. What are looking forward to doing at EVS23?

(the interview continues after the break)

Jonathan: Obviously, I am quite looking forward to being one of the speakers at EVS23. I am coming back from a previous Electric Vehicle Symposium in April and the same event at the same center in Anaheim. The reason for this comeback is we made a lot of good academic links and good industrial links more importantly for the project. We just hope to come over now and start our automobile ties and hope we have some crosslink projects and programs ongoing.

Sebastian: This will be then be to help promote the technology behind this hydrogen minibus or other ones as well?

Jonathan: Yes, there are two ways really. We are looking to promote the technology, or the system as I call it, being the hybrid minibus. Also, to look into actually starting new programs of work into new research areas.

Sebastian: Since the bus is something that we can at least have a concrete idea, those of our listeners who are close to the computer can go online and we have a picture upon the site and this a 16-passenger bus and it has a 55-mile per hour top speed. It can go about 150 miles and as you have said, you call it a tribrid and that means that it has hydrogen fuel cells, some batteries and ultracapacitors. I have a little bit of information from the press release on these things. But what can you tell us about those three different power sources. Let us start with lead acid batteries from Yuasa battery?

Jonathan: The lead acid batteries were used for their particularly good high energy density. The take on that was looking at it from existing electric vehicles and what is the issue of electric vehicles using batteries only. At present, the main issue comes back, apart from the weight issue, is actually the range.

What I have actually said is we can cut down the batteries we use in the vehicle. Using the onboard fuel cell as a range extender or should I say onboard charger and this is based on the assumption that the vehicle primarily will be designed for city commuting where actually probably 50% of the time or more so some of the biggest cities here in the UK, you are stopped at traffic lights or in traffic itself so during this time you can always be recharging. The great thing about lead acid is even though it is not one of the most high tech battery technology; it is proven and tested. It is very robust and it actually has the ability to take very high levels of current very quickly, provided it's within its optimal charging region.

Sebastian: In there, the cost obviously is done, I know a lot of people who convert electric cars on their own opt for the lead acid even though they are heavier but as you said, they are tested. They are available and they work for the things that people want them to do. In a vehicle this heavy, I mean a 16-passenger minibus, that is not a light car to move around. You found that they give also a good solid performance.

Jonathan: Yes, the lead acids give a good ability to deliver all the currents of the vehicle. However, we are recognizing here with this vehicle that was the batteries can give this full performance. It is often unnecessary to actually make them do this. So essentially what we are doing is using the fuel cell to extend the range by charging it. But, also offer a bit of big load buffer into the vehicles. So when you have those high tow points where you are accelerating, you are actually using some of the power from the fuel cell.

Sebastian: And where do the ultracaps come in? Those are from the Maxwell High Voltage Capacitors?

Jonathan: Yes, they are Maxwell projects sold here in the UK and the Young Electronics was their distributor. The ultracaps are essential, I am using to improve the regenerative breaking. Whereas people proclaim regenerative breaking is really an efficient system, in fact you would probably find your return on your regenerative break in somewhat in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent actual regain.

This is simply because of the batteries will take currency. It cannot absorb the energy so far more effectively doing it. It is actually more effective to use a bank of ultracapacitors to absorb this regenerative energy and then store for then when you go to the next big load point, i.e, when you go to accelerate from the light after breaking and the ultracapacitors would be the system of the most power path of least resistance. Therefore, allow us to assist the vehicle to boost. This then buffers the batteries from this peak load and helps improve their range further.

Sebastian: It seems like you are taking a lot of the best things from the different technologies and putting them into one package rather than relying on one to do everything and then coming up against the shortcomings because ultracapacitors cannot accept all the energy from the regenerative breaking. I mean, they cannot accept as much energy as a battery but they can absorb it very quickly and then deliver it very quickly back to the vehicle.

Jonathan: Yes. I am recognizing here that just as where the internal combustion engine market is going down the hybrid route as well. I believe in the future one solution vehicle probably never exists and in many conferences we spoke about that and they said would you believe in fuel cells only or do you believe in the battery vehicle is the predominant vehicle in the future. I said actually, I believe in the hybrid or actually what I call the tribrid vehicle is the solution.

The reason being is, then, you have the best benefits of all technologies. If you were to walk into a normal dealership today, you are going to have in front of you five or six different versions of petrol engines, five or six different versions of diesel engines if you are here in the UK. The reason why there is an option is because it is to specify to a customer's particular needs.

If you are a local driver who just wants to get to and from work there is no need to buy 2.5 L V6. Typically here in the UK, you will find going through 2 L diesel now because you can get 50 to 60 miles to a gallon after that. I recognize this fact from the electric vehicle market and say actually these technologies complement each other and you should be using them to go to actually improve the systems further.

Sebastian: And something like the bus where you have the space and you can add a little bit of extra weight without being such a huge percentage of the overall weight, do you feel that that gives a lot of flexibility to when you were designing the tribrid system?

Jonathan: Yes, essentially the project is a research project so we have adapted an existent internal combustion engine vehicle to fit the electric powertrain in. Commercially, for the future for our supported partners, we will probably look from a differently and look to perhaps develop a vehicle specifically for our electric drive drain, i.e., a vehicle with suspension space and position slightly different to allow for easy insulation of battery packs, etcetera, but clearly with the commercial vehicles of that size, we have a lot of space to work with and actually when you find, when you actually take the engine out and all the auxiliaries out and replace it with batteries that you are heavier but not a substantial amount heavier.

Sebastian: Your commercial partners, I believe that they are called Dragon Coachworks?

Jonathan: Yes, the actual supporting partners who support the research phase right now called Dragon Coachworks and they are actually a combination of two Welsh companies being Bracken Coachworks and Dragon Truck and Van. Bracken are specialist body builders so they are converting of existing vans and other configured vehicles into community municipal vehicles for hospital transport, for local and city transports and for a variety of applications and then Dragon Truck and Van has a rescue arm to that company.
However, the logistics arm where they can actually service vehicles, provide breakdown assistance throughout the UK so this way you are actually providing the expertise if these vehicles were to cause issues of breakdown to actually have another supply chain and support chain along with that as well.

Sebastian: It does seem fairly important. I think there are a lot of people who are interested in having a car that does not emit carbon from the tail pipe but are a little bit afraid of this new technology. I did not know what that was sort of a bonus benefit of working with this particular company but I can see it being a good marketing thing; it would be nice to be able to tell people, hey, we have got this back-up system and especially, I believe you said that the bus would be around, it might be sold for around £90,000 which for us Americans, $190,000 or thereabouts., with something that expensive, people want to be sure that they are getting obviously something solid and a little bit of service to go along with it.

Jonathan: Yes, and this has the actual fuel cell version would probably retail in that region, but we are actually looking at the long-term strategy of the company as well. I am looking at the research all these years in academic. Thus, the company they plan to introduce a small fleet in the middle of 2008 of battery only vehicles with ultracapacitors using a variety of battery technologies. You have started to generate the interest and actual return on the investment on the research site.

Slowly as we are able to establish a hydrogen refueling infrastructure here in South Wales which would have one refueling point opening as of March next year with several more planned for late 2008 and 2009. We will be able to start introducing the larger jump to the fuel cell based hydrogen economy.

Sebastian: I know that the van has been showing a few public venues earlier this Fall and what were some of the public reactions? Over here, in America.. at the cars shows that I have been to, you have some people very much in favor of hydrogen, some people very much against it. What was the general mood of the people that you spoke with or who saw the van and you heard about?

Jonathan: The general mood of people is everyone seems to be now respecting that we have an issue with global warming. But more importantly probably, we have an issue with the fact that we are rapidly running out of oil reserves. Further, most people were actually encouraged by the fact that we proposed not to introduce just a fuel cell version but a variety of versions.

A lot of people have options here in the UK already with electric vehicles. However, they feel that the range of 150 miles plus is a benefit to our application for the fuel cell site. However, other people only require 20 to 30 miles a day. We are willing to compromise on the specification to deliver what they require as well. It was mostly positive benefits.

You do get the odd person who likes to proclaim that even though it is a emission-free vehicle directly. Indirectly the vehicle actually omits just as much CO2 from actual integration, actual development of the components and actually where does the power come from, from a gas-powered power station. However, we are not proclaiming to have a one solution to fix all. We are just developing the vehicle then the other people like the power producers to produce more renewable energy in the future.

Sebastian: When people make the long tailpipe parking which is what a lot of people call that, the argument that you just described. It is easier to clean up emissions at one source than at 100,000 different tailpipes on the road. So if each individual tailpipe is putting out water vapor or have a battery that does not have a tailpipe at all, you can then deal with pollution that is being produced at the hydrogen production facility, wherever that might be. That is good to hear that it is somewhat similar to what we are seeing over here and you said you already had good response to people when you came in and brought the information on the van over in April. Let's see, you already mentioned that the hydrogen bus will start, the testing that will start next March at the university.

Jonathan: Yes, towards the end of March and early April, we will start the service at the university. It will be during March, it will actually start. It just going to essentially start with us and intercampus transportation system basically taking students from the University of Glamorgan, which is located in Pontypridd which is just outside Cardiff; the capital city of Wales, to our actual new Cardiff Campus which is located within the capital city. It is probably a round trip of 15 miles. It is along some high-speed roads and some low-speed roads.

The vehicle needed be one that was able to vary to wide capacity and also speed range. Hence, why we have chosenthis chassis and the combination of motor and battery technologies. Beyond this then, it,, especiallly during the first stages can be used as a research tool first to learn but beyond this then, obviously the university itself is encouraged and wants to expand this use of alternative clean vehicles. We are already talking about using electric vehicles for maintenance vehicles here on site for refuse collection for the halls ofresidents and other applications.

Sebastian: And what sort of things will you be interested in to see when the data rolls in as far as how the bus is performing? What are you going to be really keeping an eye out for?

Jonathan: I keep an eye out for will be two aspects myself. One the actual long-term reliability of the vehicle. I am interested in the reliability issues of service, the reliability of the fuel cell which has been questionable in the past but now this new system. The fuel cell that we are using currently from Hydrogenics in Canada has never failed. It is extremely reliable, robust unit. But also, secondly, I will be looking at new actual charging strategy for the control systems of the vehicle, which is what I am developing as a part of my research. I came to see how my research stability improved and charge potentially to really show simulation on the small scale introduction levels.

Sebastian: I hope that everything works out well for you. I look forward to hearing your presentation out in Anaheim and I hope that our listeners were intrigued and if they ever find themselves over at the university that they will hop a ride on the hydrogen-powered bus starting next year.

Jonathan: I am sure they will do that. No problem at all. Thank you very much.

Sebastian: Thank you, Jonathan.

Hydrogen Powered Bus Revealed

A prototype mini bus fuelled by hydrogen and created in Wales will be showcased for the first time in London this week, 25tlh – 27th September.

The brain child of experts at the University of Glamorgan and funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and the Energy Saving Trust, the mini bus will be the only passenger vehicle, larger than a car, to be exhibited at the Tenth Grove Fuel Cell Symposium.

The event is a platform for the progress being made in the fuel cell industry in the UK and the many applications for the technology.

The bus which is powered by a fuel cell uses hydrogen as its fuel, eliminating the need for non-environmentally friendly fuel sources. The technology means that in the future vehicles could be refuelled at hydrogen 'filling stations' rather than at the conventional pump.

The only one of its kind in Wales, the mini bus will be viewed by over 5000 visitors from across the globe at this event at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, Westminster.

Ieuan Wyn Jones, Minister for the Economy and Transport, described it as an excellent opportunity to illustrate the innovative work being undertaken in Wales and the drive by the Assembly Government to encourage and support the development of alternative fuels and green technology.

"The Assembly Government has supported and sponsored the development of this technology through the automotive Accelerate Clusters network. This has enabled industry partners throughout Wales to collaborate and link into the academic expertise at the University which has proved to be a winning combination."

Jonathan Williams who manages the project at Glamorgan commented, "This exhibition will really put Wales on the map as a leader in the field of development of non CO2 technologies. The work we are undertaking at Glamorgan is state of the art and we are looking forward to showcasing the minibus in an international arena.

"We have ambitious plans for this technology and hope that the work done at Glamorgan will pave the way for further work in the development of hydrogen powered fuel cell technology."

The hydrogen fuelled mini-bus will be exhibited on the Wales stand which is organised and sponsored by International Business Wales (IBW), the overseas trade arm of the Welsh Assembly Government.

The technology undertaken by the University of Glamorgan plays a key role in the automotive sector proposition for Wales and IBW will use the occasion to promote the automotive sector in Wales, the work undertaken by the Accelerate Clusters and the ground breaking technology being developed in Wales

After the event in London, the mini bus will come back to Glamorgan where it will undergo a trial period taking students between the University's campuses.

Brecon Coachworks is the company responsible for converting the shell of the vehicle into a comfortable mini bus able to carry up to 16 people including disabled passengers.

More Information