Hydrogen - fuel of the future?

Hydrogen Pupils build a system for measuring torque.

Mr Paul Allen - Cranfield Institute of Technology
Dr Nigel Schofield - Head of the Power Conversion Group

'Hydrogen will be the fuel of the future.' This was the conclusion of pupils from Cirencester Deer Park School who spent two days working in laboratories at the University of Manchester. The Power Conversion Group in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Manchester are developing a hydrogen fuel cell taxi, which gave the fifteen-year-old pupils first hand experience of research leading towards a hydrogen based economy.

The project, led by Cirencester Deer Park School's Head of Science, Seb Rogers, is part of a programme of extension projects that give pupils with an interest in science an experience way beyond the school curriculum. The pupils experienced science research outside of the classroom with working scientists,' says Seb. They learnt about the pressing problem of finding alternatives to fossil fuels.' The project was funded by the Royal Society Partnership Grants scheme, which offers grants for initiatives that enable pupils to work with scientists or engineers on hands-on projects.

At Cirencester Deer Park School twelve pupils, selected through statements on what they would gain from the project, started out working on hydrogen powered buggies. The hydrogen fuel cells used in these buggies work on the same principles as those being developed at Manchester, providing first hand experience of this technology,' says Seb. Pupils planned methods for measuring the theoretical energy available in the hydrogen, the energy used in the process, the output from the fuel cells and the energy transferred to the buggies. This data enabled the pupils to assess the overall efficiency of the process. This part of the project improved the pupils' understanding of energy transfer and efficiency and developed their team working skills,' explains Seb.

The team of pupils then travelled to the University of Manchester with their teachers to observe the work of Dr Nigel Schofield, Head of the Power Conversion Group. I tracked Nigel down by checking who the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) had given grants for work on hydrogen power,' says Seb. At the University, the pupils used the skills developed in school to measure the electrical output of a full size hydrogen fuel cell using the advanced research equipment only available at Manchester.

A major hurdle to the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells is their efficiency and the project introduced the pupils to the engineering concepts involved in increasing efficiency. The pupils worked with PhD students developing cheaper and more effective materials for the proton exchange membranes used in hydrogen cells the part of the cell that creates the electric current by separating the positively charged ions from the negatively charged electrons. The final part of the project developed the students communication skills, as they were required to make group presentations about what they had learned.

We aim to organise at least one project like this a year,' says Seb. Last year we piloted several new projects with local businesses and industry with great effect. We are always on the look-out for partners to run projects with.'