For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. British scientists, engineers and inventors have played a significant role in developing engines and the automotive industry that stemmed from them.
Before the internal combustion engine, steam power was revolutionary in progressing industry in Britain.
The first practical steam engine was designed by English inventor Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and was later adapted by Scotsman James Watt in 1765. Watt’s steam engine was the first to make use of steam at an above atmospheric pressure.
The Steam Engine - How Does It Work? Video: Real Engineering
In 1804, the first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made by a steam locomotive design by Richard Trevithick, an inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, UK.
After this, steam trains took off and the steam engine was used in many ways such as powering the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843.
The SS Great Britain in Bristol, UK, today.
Engines at the ready
The conception and refinement of the internal combustion engine involved many inventors from around the world, including British ones.
The automobile, using the internal combustion engine, was been invented in the United States, and Britain picked up on this emerging industry very quickly. These brands are among the most famous and abundant cars on the road today; Aston Martin, Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce may come to mind.
By the 1950s, the UK was the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the world (after the United States) and the largest exporter.
In 1930, the jet engine was patented by Sr Frank Whittle. He was an aviation engineer and pilot who started his career as an apprentice in the Royal Air Force (RAF). The jet engine became critical after the outbreak of World War II.
Great Britain are still major players in the aviation industry, and engineering innovations continue to be a major part of the British economy. British inventors have gone on to invent the hovercraft, hundreds of different jet designs and a variety of military vehicles.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the first element in the periodic table, hydrogen!
Hydrogen isn’t just for keeping balloons afloat. Image: Pixabay
Hydrogen (H2) gas has many uses in modern engineering. Scientists are always searching for cheaper, more renewable fuel sources that have a lower negative impact on the environment. Hydrogen was frequently used to generate energy in the past, and this drive for more renewable energy has given hydrogen-derived fuel a new lease of life.
Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells. These act like batteries, generating their energy from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen (O2). Hydrogen fuel cells have been incorporated into many modern technologies, including automotive. As the reaction occurring only generates heat, electricity and water, fuel cells are significantly better for the environment than many alternatives. Hydrogen is also much cheaper as a commodity that typical fuels.
Hydrogen fuel cells can now be used to power automotive vehicles, including cars!
Engineering cooling systems can use hydrogen. The gases physical properties make it 7-10 times better at cooling than air. It can also be easily detected by sensors. Because of this, hydrogen is used in cooling systems, which are generally smaller and less expensive than other available options.
Hydrogen gas can be used in reactions. The most famous reaction using hydrogen is the production of ammonia (NH3), also known as the Haber process. The Haber process was developed by Fritz Haber and Car Bosch in the early 20th century to fill the need to produce nitrogen-based fertilisers. In the Haber process, atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is reacted with H2 and a metal catalyst to produce NH3.
Nitrogen-based fertilisers are still used today, but ammonia was one of the first to be commercially produced.
Ammonia is a valuable fertilised, providing much needed nitrogen to plants. It was used on a variety of agricultural plants, including food crops wheat and maize, in the 19th and early 20th century.
Chemists undertake other chemical reactions, such as hydrogenation and reduction, that utilise hydrogen, to make commercially valuable products. Some physical properties of hydrogen make it tricky, and often dangerous, to use in industry. However, careful control of conditions allow for its safe use on larger scales.
Hydrogen gas can be explosive, making it often dangerous to use.
Producing hydrogen gas
There are many ways to produce gaseous hydrogen. The four main sources of commercially produced hydrogen are natural gas, oil, coal and electrolysis. To obtain gaseous hydrogen, the fossil fuels are ‘steam reformed’, a process which involves a reaction with steam at high pressure and temperature.
Electrolysis of water is another method that is used in hydrogen production. This method is 70-80% efficient. However, it often requires large amounts of energy, specifically in the form of heat. This heat can be sourced from waste heat produced by industrial plants.
So, whats all this hot air about hydrogen? Source: Tedx Talks
An alternative method for producing hydrogen is via biohydrogen. Hydrogen gas can be produced by certain types of algae. This process involves fermentation of glucose. Some hydrogen is also produced in a form of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria. This process can be used on an industrial scale.
Overall, hydrogen technology, whether it be new developments, such as hydrogen fueled cars, or old, like the Haber process, remains critical to the chemical industry.