Transportation, one of the pillars of our society, is crucial for Malta’s economic and societal existence. As the world turns away from hydrocarbons and towards alternative energy, we push to seek the electrification of the transport network.

The most direct approach to achieve this is logically through the use of electric vehicles. As a country, we have started to introduce EVs in both the commercial and personal transportation networks with the help of strong government incentives.

While such a route is indeed the most straightforward one towards electrification, it still poses its own set of challenges, including the necessity of setting up sufficient charging points throughout the island.

For an urbanised country such as Malta, having sufficient charging points, especially when considering resi­dents living in the village core and apartments, is an expensive challenge.

Electric vehicles also present novel challenges such as the recycling or disposal of batteries at their end of life, tackling lithium-ion battery fires, especially with cars parked inside garages, and the effect on the low-voltage network from multiple distributed charging points spread around the network itself.

A solution the MCAST Institute of Engineering and Transport is actively evaluating is to use hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant of the elements, as fuel. The word hydrogen is derived from the two Greek words ‘hydro’ and ‘genes’, which mean ‘water forming’; and it is this water-forming ability, when combined with oxygen, that makes hydrogen key for its use in the electrification of transport.

Electric vehicles pose a number of challenges, including the number of charging points available and their effect on the low-voltage network. Photo: Matthew MirabelliElectric vehicles pose a number of challenges, including the number of charging points available and their effect on the low-voltage network. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Through the use of what is known as a fuel cell, hydrogen from the fuel tank is combined with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce electricity, which in turn drives the electric motor. A hydrogen-fuelled car would emit only water from its tailpipe, thereby having no impact on the environment.

Researchers from the Institute of Engineering and Trans­­port will be conducting detailed technical research in this field and also into the efficient production of hydrogen from water. It is important to study the feasibility of using off-the-shelf products to produce hydrogen in situ through the electrolysis of water, where hydrogen and oxygen are produced by splitting water molecules via an electric current.

The main advantage of a hydrogen-fuelled vehicle system over an electric vehicle-based system is that hydrogen can be produced at a small number of fuel stations directly connected to the 11kV network rather than having thousands of electric cars being charged all over the low-voltage grid.

This would load the grid in a much more controlled way, thereby avoiding the possibilities of low voltages and grid overloads at particular points of the LV overhead line and feeder cable network.

The use of green hydrogen can also mean that our transport system would finally be totally free from the use of hydrocarbons, with the electrical energy needed to produce the hydrogen coming directly from alternative energy sources such as floating photovoltaic systems.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles utilise established techno­logy, with big automobile manufacturers offering hydrogen-fuelled vehicles at prices matching those of EVs

This is another area being pioneered by the MCAST Institute of Engineering and Transport, with an actual floating PV system having been deployed by MCAST and its industry partners around five years ago.

With a hydrogen-fuelled vehicle, consumers would also not need to wait for their car to charge over a number of hours but can just top up their tank with hydrogen at a fuel station. This is an important aspect that would help convince consumers to change their vehicle from hydrocarbon-fuelled to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles since consumers accustomed to going to the fuel station for top-up would not need to change their habits.

While a system using hydrogen would still have its inherent safety issues, one needs to point out that hydrogen-powered vehicles utilise established techno­logy, with big automobile manufacturers offering hydrogen-fuelled vehicles at prices matching those of EVs.

For some, hydrogen evokes visions of the Graf Zeppelin, with hydrogen exploding when reacted with oxygen in an uncontrolled way. Manufacturers have studied such issues and elegantly mitigated this danger through the use of special crashproof fuel tanks produced from composite materials. It could therefore well be the case that hydrogen-powered vehicles would not be any more dangerous than vehicles that utilise petrol or battery-powered, both of which have well-known safety issues too.

Even in case of an accident, in the unlikely scenario that a hydrogen leak occurs, hydrogen, being the lightest of the elements, would quickly rise up through the atmosphere and dissipate. Of course, much more research is needed to establish the viability of a hydrogen-based transport network for the Maltese islands.

This is one of the many areas in which the MCAST Institute of Engineering and Transport is leading Malta’s technological advancement – by training engineers, mechanics, technicians and technologists of tomorrow, through which our society can prosper in harmony with the environment.

Stephen Sammut is the director of the Institute of Engineering and Transport at MCAST.

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