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photography by Sofie Kirk

Battery-powered electric buses have zoomed to the heart of the environmental zeitgeist as cities around the world hop on a technological development that looks to significantly reduce emissions levels by the 2030 deadline established by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals four years ago. In hot pursuit to the finish is a comparatively new type of electric vehicle that researchers at York University claim is the next big thing in sustainable urban transportation systems.

They are hydrogen, or fuel cell, buses and for Hany Farag, an associate professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering, they are the way of the future.

“Hydrogen buses have more advantages than electrical buses,” he says, adding they can be refuelled quickly and can store more energy per tank than a freshly recharged electrical bus. A further advantage is that when burned with oxygen, hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel that can be used in electrochemical cells or internal combustion engines to power vehicles.

Hydrogen is also an abundant, if not readily available, material, comprising nearly 75 per cent of the universe. It occurs naturally in water and, unlike conventional batteries, can be stored with little energy loss for long stretches of time, making it ideal for public transit.

But before everyone jumps on the hydrogen bus, there are some potholes to consider. As most hydrogen on Earth is locked up in water, separating and compressing the gas for use in a fuel cell takes a lot of work. It is why hydrogen fuel cell vehicles tend to be a more expensive option than plug-ins.

A fuel cell electric bus costs some $1.2 million, compared to $750,000 to $900,000 for a battery-electric bus, according to a 2018 U.S. transit report.

Another challenge is infrastructure, “which for hydrogen buses so far simply doesn’t exist,” says Farag, who joined York in 2013, shortly after obtaining his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo in June of that year.

But despite the obstacles, hydrogen buses are more viable than battery-electric vehicles for public transit because they can store energy for long stretches of time and be refuelled in minutes. Hydrogen fuel cell buses also operate well in cold climates, running for 450 kilometres during any given 18-hour shift. A battery bus, by comparison, has a range of just 150 kilometres. “This is an important difference,” Farag says, “because transit companies do not want to compromise their routes, which have been developed over years in consultation with their clients. When introducing new technologies, there will be change, but the change should not be too much or the public just won’t buy it.” Others clearly agree.

In May, Transport for London announced that the world’s first hydrogen-powered double-decker buses, having only water exhaust emissions, will be on the English capital’s streets by 2020.

In June, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) deployed an all-electric bus into regular service for the first time. It is one of 60 “zero-emissions” buses the TTC is set to receive by early next year.

A newly appointed York Research Chair in Integrated Smart Energy Grids, Farag is hoping other municipalities across Ontario will soon follow suit.

“It’s a futuristic vision,” he says. “But if we think only in the short term then public transportation is done.”  

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