Microcab’s green machine could change face of city deliveries

Microcab

Microcab and Coventry University have come up with a hybrid light delivery van

Microcab - masked cyclist shutterstock_39217027
Opportunities for cleaner air are 'very exciting'

Summer in the city can be pretty dismal given the high levels of pollution in the air from vehicle emissions. However, there is a solution in development, with a new, light, delivery van that is not only aiming to be more lung-friendly, but also wants to make use of food waste. Produce Business UK finds out more

Cyclists wearing anti-pollution masks have become a familiar sight on UK city roads, a visual reminder of the contents of the air we all breathe in, the majority of which is produced by public and private transport.

Search for solutions

According to a report by Transport for London, light goods vehicles contribute around 7% to the capital’s CO2 emissions. While this may appear to be a small percentage compared to the 47% by cars and motorcycles, any reduction in carbon-emitting vehicles would be welcome.

Researchers and engineers across the world are looking for solutions for cleaner, greener vehicles but are mainly focused on private cars, such as Hyundai’s hydrogen fleet. However, at Microcab, working with Coventry University’s department of engineering, a solution for small delivery vans is being developed and tested.

The Microcab is a two-seater electric/hydrogen hybrid vehicle, with 220kg of payload space. It can run for 180 miles on 1.6kg of hydrogen, and it takes three minutes to fill the hydrogen tank as opposed to the typical six hours needed to recharge an electric vehicle. Hydrogen fuel produces electricity in a fuel cell, and it can be bought through specialist suppliers.

Sourcing hydrogen

When hydrogen is converted to produce electricity, it emits water vapour, so not only is it not producing carbon, it can actually act as a way to cool cities.

And the researchers, in partnership with the University of Birmingham, are exploring the potential to source hydrogen from anaerobic digesters, which produce biogas. Once the biogas from the digester is cleaned, it is converted to hydrogen fuel, which produces electricity in the fuel cell. 

There are many examples of such experiments taking place around the world, but the majority of projects are on farms, and the waste in question is animal manure.

Coventry University’s Professor John Jostins, who is leading the project, says he would be keen to hear from any retailers, wholesale market operators or food producers that would like to trial the vehicles for deliveries, but also to explore the possibilities of using waste food in the fuel process.

“The Microcab is perfect for city-centre deliveries, not only is it a green way to run a vehicle but also at the moment it is congestion-charge and road-tax exempt,” he explains. 

“The cab’s top speed at the moment is 55mph, due to the single gear fitted to make the drive simple and easy for city use. Right now there is a new project called SWARM, which is trialling 10 of the Microcabs across Europe.”

The fuel tank's maximum capacity is 1.6kg which is quite modest bearing in mind that 1kg of hydrogen has the same energy content as 1 gallon (3.2 kg) of petrol. However, on one tank-full Microcab can travel up to about 180 miles and 1kg of hydrogen costs roughly £4. As more vehicles are produced, this could take the price of the fuel down to the same level as petrol making the vehicle even more economical to run.

“The long-term [plan] is to get hydrogen onto the natural gas grid,” says Jostins. “One of the many benefits is that it can complement renewable energy, which is in the main wind and solar power. When there is a peak in wind or solar energy, then hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water and easily stored for use later as transport fuel. 

“This has all come about because we’re committed to greener, cleaner cities. The opportunities for better air quality, but also for further developing renewable energy are very exciting.” 

Challenges ahead

A lack of mass production means a Microcab costs around £25,000. The team has only produced a limited number of vehicles, but Jostins says that as production scales up, costs will come down.

The other challenge is one of accessing hydro-fuel, with a roll out of filling stations required. The first public hydro-filling station opened in Swindon in 2011 thanks to Swindon Borough Council’s regeneration body, Forward Swindon, receiving a £250,000 grant from the now defunct South West England Regional Development Agency. The money allowed it to build the fuel station at Honda in Swindon, and now there are other local authorities hoping to receive funding to develop a chain of filling stations.

Last year Birmingham City Council, as part of its Green Commission, launched a project with Element Energy to develop a blueprint for low-carbon vehicle-refuelling infrastructure deployment within the Birmingham region over the next 20 years.

“The Birmingham Blueprint, as a mapping study, funded through the EU project Climate KIC Transition Cities Innovation Programme, sets out an innovative approach in tackling the challenge of refuelling infrastructure deployment across Birmingham by identifying the key priorities and opportunities for low carbon fuel infrastructure,” says Councillor Lisa Trickett.

As a result of the study, the council is now working with planning guidance to help turn the recommendations, such as making land available for infrastructure, and streaming the planning process, into a deliverable reality.

With local governments enthusiastic about hydro-fuel as a way to clean up air quality, and many retailers and businesses keen to further their green credentials, this could be a happy marriage that will make Microcabs a more familiar sight then the anachronistic white van.

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