Some stories in the world of chemical engineering have stand-out lines that really grab my attention.
This week I came across an interesting story from Australia about a team of chemical engineers that have built a bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
In itself this is a great achievement, but it was a quote from associate professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, who works in the chemical engineering department at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), that really caught my attention.
He said: “We wanted to build something to show students that chemical engineering is not only about building big plants to synthesise chemicals…it’s also about building new things we can be proud of now that we may use more intensively in the future.”
Of course there’s nothing wrong with building big plants, but I’m sure most chemical engineers would generally accept that our profession is still not properly appreciated for its breadth of achievements, and, more importantly, what it can achieve in the future.
By picking on the bicycle – more commonly associated with another branch of engineering – and applying great chemical engineering to it, UNSW has illustrated the versatility, relevance and innovation inherent in our profession.
The bike itself is equally impressive. The aptly named ‘hy-cycle’ can take riders up to 125 kilometres on a single battery charge and AUSD$2 of hydrogen.
The fuel cell provides electrical assistance with pedalling, enabling the rider to easily travel long distances or up hills. The researchers hope the hy-cycle will become a low-cost, sustainable transport option and tap into schemes in cities like London and Paris, which provide fleets of bicycles that people can hire for a few hours a day to commute to and from work.
Beyond the initial ‘fun’ of the hy-cycle, there is some serious work being done by the researchers to demonstrate that hydrogen is a clean and safe source of energy.
Aguey-Zinsou says: “What we’ve been trying to develop in my lab is a new way to store hydrogen in a very compact fashion. Hydrogen storage can be a problem because it’s a light gas, but with the material and the technology we’ve developed you can actually make it safe to store and use.”
The hydrogen for the hy-Cycle is carried in a 2.5 kg canister that sits adjacent to the pedals. The canister feeds the fuel cell, which is located under the seat and continuously recharges a Lithium-ion battery.
A standard metal hydride inside the canister enables safe, user-friendly storage of the hydrogen, which can be produced with as little as 100 ml of water. The water is split into its elements – oxygen and hydrogen – and the fuel cell recombines the hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity.
Great technology and vision by the team at UNSW – well done to you all.