How Extreme E created its own zero-emissions power source

Extreme E's goal only works if the electric cars are powered by clean energy. Hydrogen fuel cells appear to be the answer

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Can you hear that? Thought not. That sound you can’t hear, that’s the sound of motion lotion being squeezed from hydrogen. The other sound you can’t hear is the solar panel powering the process of electrolysis to produce the hydrogen.

Those last two sentences are two I genuinely never saw myself writing. Until this morning.

Extreme E comms guru Julia Fry called to ask if I was interested in why the world’s first all-electric off-road series were deploying hydrogen fuel cell power generators for charging. This apparently had something to do with supporting Extreme E’s goal of being sustainable and creating minimal local impact on the environments in which it races?.

I woke the children up to see if they could explain this question to me.

Georgia, 13-and-three-quarters , immediately started talking electrons, protons (no, not the yellow ones Alister McRae used to drive) and atoms. Ollie, 12-and-a-bit, told me where I could stick chemistry. Or physics. Whichever this one counted as.

“Unless,” he said, “this has something to do with Extreme E…”

I nodded.

“Why didn’t you say!”

Moments later, I was presented by a drawing and a two-pronged delivery of how hydrogen is made within a fuel cell.

It’s simple, apparently. Hydrogen goes into the fuel cell one side, oxygen the other, electrochemistry happens and electricity’s made.

But how do we make hydrogen?


I vaguely remembered that being something to do with an electrical current being used to break water down into oxygen and hydrogen.

Suspicious of anything which doesn’t require internal combustion, I decided to dig a little deeper.

The H-Power fuel cell system has been developed by AFC Energy. The CEO of AFC Energy is Adam Bond – you can see him in this video explaining how all this stuff works.

Adam’s a very patient man. I know, I tested his patience.

“How does it work?” I queried.

Pause. There was that pause. I’ve heard it before. It’s the pause the other person takes when they’re genuinely computing the significant level of stupidity at the other end of the line.

We started from the beginning.

“Electrolysis requires power, so we will be running the electrolyzer system off a solar array that will accompany the system, so we’ll produce energy from that the moment the sun comes up,” Bond explained.

I saw the light.

Stick with it and you will too. Humor me. Pretend you hadn’t seen the light hours ago.

“We blow hydrogen through a series of pipes into a fuel cell stack,” he continued. “That fuel cell stack is made up of 100 electrodes and within those electrodes is a catalyst. When you blow hydrogen and oxygen into that stack you present those gases against the electrode and a form of electrochemistry takes place, the result of that electrochemistry is an electron and a unit of water.

“Electrolysis splits water to get hydrogen and oxygen. A fuel cell uses hydrogen [and] oxygen to create electricity and water. We’re the opposite of an electrolyzer. And that water we capture, we can use this to wash down the cars or in the portaloos or something like that. I wouldn’t drink it though.”

Once those electrons are produced, they’re sent into a battery and stored.

Bond added: “We’ve had a battery built into the system whereby the fuel cell charges the battery and the battery discharges into the car.

“The [H-Power] system will be dropped off in the service park on day one and we’ll be setting up for a couple of weeks before the race. During that time we’re going to be creating hydrogen, so when it comes to race weekend we’ll have a nice sum of hydrogen stored in canisters a little bit bigger than the ones which hold the gas for your barbecue. We will continue to run our fuel cell 24/7 over the race weekend, but obviously the cars won’t be charging 24/7 – they’ll only charge when they need to.”

And with a fortnight’s worth of hydrogen ready to fire into the fuel cell, making electrons via an electrochemical process involving electrodes and a catalyst.

Do you get it? Please say yes.

Basically, what this means is you can plonk a H-Power system anywhere on planet earth (providing there’s some sunlight for the solar panel or wind for a turbine) and you can make the juice needed to fire a ton and a half of car to 60mph up a 130-degree incline in just over four seconds.

And the only emission is water. Seriously! How mad is that.


Photo: Extreme E

“It’s 100% sustainable,” said Bond. “When we first started talking to Extreme E back in January, they told us they needed to create power – that’s what we do. We found ways of making it a little bit funkier, cutting edge. There aren’t too many international sporting events that can say: “We’re not only creating clean power, but we’re creating our own clean fuel to charge up an EV that’s at the core of that sporting event.”

“That’s a pretty unique thing to say.”

And it could be coming to a corner near you. Especially if you live somewhere a bit more remote.

“The Scottish Government is looking very closely at hydrogen opportunities. Scotland has the opportunity to be a leader in the use of hydrogen because of the amount of wind that’s available up there and the chance to convert that into hydrogen and then use that as a fuel.

“Wherever you have tourism, people tend to drive to it, you need a car to go to the Scottish Highlands and these kind of places, but those locations don’t want solar panels or wind turbines – but you have to have somewhere to charge cars. The Scottish Highlands are a good example of this, instead of investing into upgrading the grid to cope with the demand from EVs in the future, why not put fuel cells in and charge them up using hydrogen that’s generated by the wind on the coast?

“They [the H-Power fuel cells, which are about the size of a shipping container] can be camouflaged, they can go underground. There’s a lot of places in the UK where the grid isn’t quite there in terms of power consumption. There’s a new high-performance road car out with a 250kW battery. The average house uses 0.5kW/hour, so extrapolate that out and charging that car in one hour is going to take the same power needed to power 500 houses for the same period.

We have a significant amount of cars coming to draw down power from a grid that was never designed to provide that service. We have an answer for that.”

Adam, it seems, has an answer for everything. He’s a very clever man. Extreme E is a very clever series. And, right now, I’m feeling just a little bit cleverer.

Words:David Evans

Photos:Extreme E