Scotland's answer to Elon Musk is pioneering hydrogen-powered transport

Emil Rangelov could be described as Scotland's answer to Elon Musk.

Emil Rangelov, 31, is convinced that the technology will take off with the right support (Photo: HV Systems)
Emil Rangelov, 31, is convinced that the technology will take off with the right support (Photo: HV Systems)

From his base in Glasgow, the half-Russian, half-Bulgarian entrepreneur is on a mission to revolutionise transport with hydrogen-powered vehicles – and save the environment in the process.

Next summer, the businessman’s company HV Systems will grab attention by driving its first prototype van 388 miles from Glasgow to London, without stopping to refuel.

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The only emission from the 8-tonne H2Van, which fittingly resembles something from a science fiction film, will be drinkable water gathered from vapour given off as it runs.

Rangelov, 31, hopes that the trip will generate a wave of excitement in hydrogen fuel technology, as no other green vehicle of such a size is currently capable of travelling such a distance without having to recharge.

The H2Van relies on a fuel cell that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, a process which produces electricity to power the engine. The only other by-product is heat.

While a handful of car manufacturers in the UK have produced hydrogen-powered cars, the technology comes into its own over long distances, making it perfect for transporting freight.

Some delivery firms are already taking notice. In London, a six-month trial of a Renault hydrogen van with a range of 200 miles was recently undertaken by courier business CitySprint.

But the H2Van, which will have a storage capacity of around 20 cubic metres, can travel up to 500 miles on a single tank of hydrogen and has a refuelling time of just six minutes.

Rangelov first became interested in the technology around 10 years ago and now believes hydrogen vehicles will eventually leapfrog battery-powered ones due to their numerous advantages.

“It is truly a revolution,” he says. “It can store a lot more energy in a smaller amount of space, which gives the vehicle a longer range and better durability, and refuelling is as fast as diesel.”

The entrepreneur believes that hydrogen-powered vehicles will be an occasional novelty on UK roads in five to 10 years, but predicts it will be more like 20 before they are a regular sight.

The Hydrogen Council, a group of companies working to promote the technology, claims that by 2030 there will be 50,000 hydrogen buses and 350,000 trucks on the world’s roads.

Much like Musk, Rangelov insists that the technology his company is pursuing is superior to others and dismisses Tesla’s plans for the Semi, the electric truck unveiled by the company last year.

Although it has a similar range to the H2Van, at the launch event Musk said the Semi would take half an hour to achieve 80 per cent power – if one of Tesla’s special superchargers was used.

“They will most likely not manufacture it because they cannot really supply that many batteries,” Rangelov says, claiming it would take “about a week” to charge the Semi in a conventional way.

That is not to say that hydrogen powered vehicles do not have their drawbacks. Each van would cost two or three times more than a diesel equivalent, meaning that only big freight firms are likely to be able to afford the technology in its initial phases.

Most hydrogen is also currently generated using fossil fuels, so in order to be truly green, vehicles would have to be rely on hydrogen generated using renewable electricity through electrolysis.

Although he accepts that cost would be a “huge barrier” for smaller haulage operators, Rangelov points out that running and maintenance costs will be significantly lower for hydrogen vehicles, meaning that over the long term, savings could be made.

His company has already attracted some high-profile supporters, notably Professor Keith Ridgway, the internationally recognised manufacturing expert who leads the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre.

In a letter to Scottish Enterprise, which has also said it is “highly enthusiastic” about the project, he described the potential of hydrogen technology as “genuinely transformational”.

“While several UK-based organisations have active programmes related to passenger vehicles, the area of freight transportation is receiving relatively little UK attention,” he wrote.

“The HV Systems proposition is therefore of considerable interest, especially given the fact that

it could see the basis for a game-changing product range from within Scotland.”

In March, the UK Government also signalled its support for the technology by putting £8.8m into

trials of 200 hydrogen-powered vehicles, which will be used by Scotland Yard and car rental firms.

The money is also being spent on four new hydrogen refuelling stations in London, Birmingham and Derby, as current infrastructure is sorely lacking for customers who use the vehicles.

“Hydrogen has huge potential, especially for those making longer journeys and clocking up high mileage,” roads minister Jesse Norman said at the time.

Rangelov is also concerned about the “massive impact” that diesel trucks and vans have on human health through air pollution, a cost ultimately borne by the NHS.

He cites an academic study published in June by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bath, which claimed that such pollution results in an extra health spend of £6bn a year UK-wide.

The health cost of the average car in inner London over the vehicle’s lifetime was nearly £8,000, while for diesel cars it was almost twice that, the scientists concluded.

Despite warm words from ministers, Rangelov complains that the UK and Scottish Governments are “stuck in the status quo” and says significant red tape is holding his business back.

“I think they’re more concerned about Brexit,” he says in typically blunt fashion. “I understand that this is an easy way to justify not spending much time on the environment, but Brexit isn’t really killing people – the environment is, through pollution.”