The number one element powering Extreme E’s world-class EVs

Extreme E is revving up for action in the coming weeks, showing us all what the latest all-electric SUVs can do. But what makes them go?

To grapple with the technology that powers Extreme E racers, as they prepare for the first leg of the new flagship electric rally car racing series in Sharaan, Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia in the first week of April, we spoke to Iain Thomson from AFC Energy. They are a leading developer of alkaline fuel cell systems used for the generation of clean energy, and are providing power for Extreme E’s race vehicles in its inaugural season. The journey starting in Sharaan, moving to three other countries before the final leg of the 2020 event, in Patagonia, Argentina.

AFC Energy is responsible for providing Extreme E with clean power derived by its hydrogen fuel cell technology. This will allow drivers to race hard throughout the series, whilst minimising their impact on the environment as they drive their vehicles.

The H-Power TM system is the name given to this technology, helping Extreme E deliver a year of racing events never seen before.

Off to a racing start

New technology means new challenges. While Iain admits that “Hydrogen isn’t a silver bullet”, to sustian all of the world’s future energy requirements, it’s a great place to start. The combustion of hydrogen as fuel produces simply water, unlike petrol and diesel, which produce not only carbon, but sulphur dioxide and other toxic chemicals also. It’s certainly a breakthrough when it comes to cleaner ways of powering vehicles of the future.
But how did AFC Energy’s involvement with Extreme E begin?

I’m looking forward to seeing the hydrogen fuel cell in action at our first race in Saudi Arabia… It has not been easy to get where we are today, but the team has been more determined than ever to make Extreme E a reality, because the climate crisis isn’t on hold for anyone or anything

– Alejandro Agag, Founder and CEO of Extreme E

Iain reveals exactly how AFC Energy and Extreme E came together in 2020, telling us, “They needed a zero-emission off-grid charging system, and they looked at a number of alternatives for a number of months prior to starting discussions with us in early 2020.”

Extreme E had been conducting crucial tests in late 2019, and they were looking for a way to deliver high-speed SUV racing, while powering those vehicles with clean sources of fuel, across a wide range of climatic conditions. This posed something of an initial challenge for the team.

“You’ve got cold weather in Greenland, you’ve got altitude at Tierro del Fuego and then you’ve got immense heat in Saudi…that automatically discounted quite a few technology options”, Iain reveals. A conversation between Extreme E’s Alejandro Agag and AFC Energy was initiated in January 2020, followed by six months of discussions about how the two could create a workable plan, before a formal agreement was made in July 2020.
Six months of design and assembly ensued, before a month of testing and validation, to put the system through its paces.

What really helps AFC Energy power up Extreme E SUVs for the duration of the competition is the method of delivery. Alkaline fuel cell technology is contained within easily-moved shipping containers which feed a battery storage unit, which, in turn, is connected into a charging unit.

“Everything is containerised, within huge shipping containers, providing the resilience to protect the technology inside”, Iain explains.

AFC Energy is also sending a team of staff to each eace to set up and maintain the power generator as necessary.

Hydrogen – super-fuel

Iain tells us of the great potential for hydrogen fuel, saying: “If you can harness the power of hydrogen effectively, it can have numerous applications across multiple industries. The big challenges are two-fold: one is making sure the technology like ours can be scaled up, so it can support a wide range of industrial applications and producing hydrogen, at locations that can easily be accessed”.

In order to become a more viable form of fuel, hydrogen must become as accessible as diesel, a fuel source which has the infrastructure in place to deliver an affordable price point to generate sufficient demand. Hydrogen is hands-down a cleaner source of power, but for the time being, diesel is considerably cheaper, despite the enormous costs to the environment, each time it is consumed.

AFC Energy is doing all it can to accelerate the deployment of its technology, to support the shift away from diesel much sooner. experiment with the different potential uses for hydrogen fuel, to help bring about that scaling up much sooner. In 2021, they will be working with Spanish construction firm ACCIONA in piloting its off-grid charging technology on one of their construction sites in Spain. This work will test using using both ammonia and hydrogen as the base fuels to power AFC Energy’s fuel cells, which will, in turn, provide the power ACCIONA needs for their operations.

The only way technology develops is through more and more people using it, providing key reference points for people to point towards.

– Iain Thomson, ‎Head of Communications AFC Energy

“That is our first work with the construction sector in a real-world situation”, Iain reveals, “and we need to build up our experience of these environments to support its use across other potential construction sites across the world.”

So where is the UK on hydrogen? Already, we see 30 countries in the world with Hydrogen Strategies in lace, whilst the UK is still developing its own for publication this year. These have been produced, in part, to develop the infrastructure required for scaling up the production of green hydrogen, which is necessary for powering all types of fuel cell technology.

Alkaline fuel cell technologies like AFC Energy’s can also use lower grades of hydrogen as its fuel source and the existing abundance of ammonia in industrial settings could be a saving grace, making the generation of hydrogen easier than we think. “Ammonia is fairly abundant, it’s a by-product of lots of industrial processes”, according to Iain. “Ammonia is stored in a number of major ports all across the world, and if this is ‘cracked’ appropriately, it could provide the power we need for powering ports and maritime operations.”

A trickle becomes a flood

Looking ahead, the shift away from traditional fuels such as petrol and diesel towards cleaner ones such as hydrogen is likely to be gradual. “The only way technology develops is through more and more people using it, providing key reference points for people to point towards.”

Iain refers to the switch towards renewables as a perfect demonstration of how something seemingly so alien eventually became an accepted orthodoxy.

In the case of renewables, public discourse derided such concerns about sustainable sources of power being the concern of mere eco-warriors. However, this derision only masked the slow but gradual acceptance and uptake of solar panels on the roofs of hundreds of thousands of homes over the last decade, especially following the expansion of feed-in tariffs.

As it seems, hydrogen as a fuel source with industrial applications is just getting started, and all it needs is more open minds asking the right questions. It simply needs a growing level of interest to spark a much-needed expansion in the infrastructure required to sustain its generation, and as the old saying goes, we’ll be off to the races.

AFC Energy is a member of the Hydrogen Council, an initiative comprised of 120 companies based all over the world, all working to help mitigate the impact of climate change by helping us transition towards hydrogen. For more information about their latest work, check out their website.

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