It might surprise many people to know that Towngas, the ubiquitous Hong Kong fuel that powers cookers, food factories, gyms and laundries, is 50% hydrogen gas.
And this “secret ingredient” in the city’s gas blend could the key to establishing a Hong Kong hydrogen network for cleaner transportation, says the boss of a government research firm investigating safe hydrogen infrastructure.
Lawrence Cheung, CEO of government-funded Automotive Platforms and Application Systems (APAS), says the city’s Towngas recipe makes Hong Kong uniquely placed to take advantage of a hydrogen revolution.
“All around the world, if you want to go to hydrogen, you need to set up the hydrogen infrastructure. But we have it already!” he says, talking in an exclusive interview with Transit Jam.
The hydrogen is produced as part of Towngas’ production process: the firm uses a mix of regular natural gas, shipped in as LNG, and hydrogen it creates from naphtha at its Tai Po plant.
Decarbonising that “cooking gas” at a bus depot, for example, could easily yield a useful supply of hydrogen.
“It’s a viable way to allow Hong Kong to run hydrogen buses,” says Cheung, who says there are existing technologies available to split and process the Towngas mix into hydrogen and methane.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says of the decarbonising processes.
Cheung believes buses could then be fuelled with hydrogen in just 10 minutes. “The usage pattern is similar to the diesel-powered buses,” he says.
While burning hydrogen is clean at the tailpipe, the Towngas fuel is not exactly “green”: the hydrogen is produced from naphtha in the first place, and would then need to separated from the Towngas supply at some energy cost. But studies in the US have shown similar processes can still create fuel with less CO2 and pollution burden than in the production of traditional fuel.
And Cheung says using this existing product, already piped all over town, rather than waiting for “green hydrogen” produced from renewables, could help demonstrate the range and safety of such buses in Hong Kong.
For its part, APAS will focus on hydrogen supply and storage technologies, he says, with research into fuel cells and electric power well established locally and around the world.
Ultimately Cheung believes Hong Kong public transport will run on a “multi-modal” mix of clean technologies, including batteries, pantograph-powered “opportunity charging” models and fast-charged battery vehicles.
But the research director is not optimistic about the immediate prospects of electric public transport.
“The main problem is the duty cycle,” he says. “For example, taxis only slow down or stop during the shift change, so if you ask them to stop and charge for four hours, forget it.”
For buses, the problem is more the space required to charge 10,000 buses overnight – and the electricity demand should all buses be electrically-powered.
“I don’t see how it’s going to work,” he says.
In a wide-ranging interview, Cheung also covered smart city applications such as 5G navigation beacons in the road – the issue with which is cost, not technology, he says. He also disclosed details of a system being developed at APAS that can detect red-light runners and alert nearby drivers.
But in response to earlier criticisms about funding through the Smart Traffic Fund, Cheung says the issue is moot, as APAS is entirely funded by the government “somehow or other”.
Questions were raised several weeks ago when an investigation revealed the Hong Kong Productivity Council, which owns APAS, was also the gatekeeper for Smart Traffic Fund research grants, of which APAS has been the biggest beneficiary.
“Whether we get funding from Smart Traffic Fund or from ITC [Innovation and Technology Commission], it makes no difference,” says Cheung, pointing out the research body isn’t a profit-making or commercial enterprise.
The most recent award was of $19.7 million to develop autonomous people movers to ferry residents around a housing estate.
Cheung says APAS was initially cagey about revealing any details to reporters as the project had not yet won resident buy-in.
“I don’t want residents to find out about this in the media,” he says.
The project, which will purchase two people movers and development tools, will be announced in due course, he says, revealing only that its project partner is shuttle bus firm Kwoon Chung.