How Birmingham can help to clean urban air

by Dr Michaela Kendall, Visiting Professor.

Air Pollution in Cities is Nothing New

Since the VW emissions scandal broke, air pollution in cities has remained a top public health concern. With such stories rarely out of the news, you could be forgiven for thinking that something has recently emerged from medical science illustrating the dangers of combustion-generated air pollution to human health.

In fact the health implications of air pollution from burning fossil fuels have been well understood for many decades. Air pollution complaints in London go back centuries for example – it is not for nothing we call London The Smoke.  Following the Clean Air Acts of the 1950’s and 60’s smoky fires for heating homes were gradually relegated to power stations away from cities, mostly decoupling urban populations from smoke – but vehicles quietly brought people and combustion emissions back together again. As UK vehicle numbers have inexorably risen they have gradually contributed more and more to urban air pollution, becoming the biggest polluter of UK city air.

Normalising Human Exposures to Air Pollution

We have all been exposed to vehicle pollution in cities during our lives, and the highest concentrations are often inside the vehicles themselves. Indeed the difficulty for scientists in early studies was identifying a control group: Very few people on the planet are not directly exposed to vehicle exhaust, or smoke of some kind, so we still do not really know what happens to people when they are not exposed to a lifetime of combustion generated pollution. Linking environmental pollutant exposures to disease is actually notoriously difficult to do, but small airborne particles and other pollutants from vehicle exhaust have been linked for decades to premature death, precisely because they are everywhere.

A seminal US air pollution study by Harvard published in 1993 and thousands of copy-cat studies across the globe show surprisingly consistent results. A real shock has been that once you remove the bulk of air pollution from open fires as we have done in the UK and US, the health effects of much lower smoke levels are still measurable, and extremely costly. That is why once the VW fraud was discovered (again, by USA scientists), it was quickly prosecuted in the USA. The long-term bill for trying to cheat air quality regulation will be huge and may bankrupt companies. The effects and costs of this air pollution are well established for decades, and legally absolutely robust.

The evidence has been crystal clear.  The solution; not so much. It turns out that for many people the idea of living without cars – as was once imagined in the 1990s – is virtually impossible and car ownership continues to grow worldwide. So where are the low-carbon, low emission transport solutions? One emerging technology comes from batteries. But people are so used to their vehicles and the range and performance of internal combustion engines that only vehicles with a comparable range and refuel rate to their current car model are going to be an acceptable replacement. This is a technical challenge that is currently out of reach for battery systems, despite clear urban air advantages of battery vehicles.

Fuel Cell Solutions

Another option for zero emission cars and buses is hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles. Despite the emergence of new, clean hydrogen technologies decades ago, there is still reluctance in the UK to develop and deploy fuel cell technology. Commercial models are now on the market. Fuel cell vehicles can be re-fueled within three minutes for a range of hundreds of miles per tank, comparable to current conventional vehicles. Such advantages suggest fuel cell technologies running on hydrogen could be adopted by the transport sector, despite a lack of re-fueling infrastructure in 2017. So what hope for hydrogen-powered vehicles solving air pollution in Birmingham? And what can Britain do to support fuel cell technology to clean urban air?

Three fuel cell companies spun out from UK universities way back in the 1990’s to great excitement around the world – Intelligent Energy, Ceres Power and Adelan flew the flag for UK innovation in fuel cell technology, and several other UK companies have emerged since, such as Arcola and AFC, and ITM in hydrogen generation. Intelligent Energy, Ceres Power and Adelan have been resilient over 20 years, building global profiles and partnering with international agencies and companies, proving their global impact. They have realised value in very different ways, offering unique technologies, in a wide range of different products.

These companies all develop fuel cells for use on-board vehicles, but their fuel cells can also displace other combustion emissions that would otherwise occur in city centres, such as from gas boilers in homes for example. Fuel cells developed in the UK and beyond can be deployed to improve air quality today. It is possible, and with effort impacts could be faster and wider. Fuel cell technologies are being deployed or developed in Birmingham today to address urban air pollution, but more needs to be done to support commercialisation of these UK technologies before they disappear overseas. China in particular is hungry for disruptive clean energy technologies, and so the likelihood is that fuel cells will be nurtured there. Opportunities exist for the UK to lead the world in fuel cell technology and with it an end to urban air pollution and its devastating impacts on human health. Brexit may provide an opportunity for the UK to do just that.

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