Message Support Search

COPCAS Student Blog: A breakthrough emergency vehicle to help solve the climate emergency: The hydrogen powered ambulance

Friday, November 5, 2021

On Day 2 of COP26 the UK launched one of this COP’s first commitments: The Breakthrough Agenda. Backed and signed by over 40 world leaders, The Agenda aims to ‘accelerate the development and deployment of clean technologies and sustainable solutions to meet Paris Agreement goals, ensuring they are affordable and accessible for all’. With two of the four ‘Breakthrough’ goals being Road Transport and Hydrogen (the other two being Power and Steel), it was fitting that the COPCAS team had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Rutherford, who was at COP26 showcasing NHS England’s first hydrogen-fuelled ambulance.  

Funded by Innovate UK, the ambulance is an electric based vehicle with a hydrogen range extender. This is part of the greener NHS’s initiatives to cut their emissions in ‘Delivering a net zero NHS’. The initiative aims to reduce emissions the NHS can directly control by 2040, and emissions the NHS can influence by 2045.  

Zero emission ambulances are already in use; West Midlands Ambulance Service launched the first electric ambulance in October 2020. With a range of 105 – 110 miles and a recharge time of four hours (and the potential to be reduced to two hours), Chris explained how electric only ambulances may be better suited for urban areas where mileage is typically lower. The hydrogen ambulance has a greatly increased range so could be useful for rural or suburban areas where ambulances tend to do higher mileage. Due to the number of consumables required (such as defibrillator, trolley bed, suction unit etc.), the electric element alone can drive for around 50 miles. The hydrogen fuel cell increases the capacity or range by a further 250 miles. The future, as stated by Chris, will be through a combination of both electric and hydrogen ambulances. As with all climate change issues, there is no silver bullet and different combinations of solutions are required for different contexts.  

The innovation has also been used as an opportunity to make additional changes to the ambulance design. These include modifications which reduce patient stress and anxiety levels as well as to reduce musculoskeletal issues of ambulance workers. 

The hydrogen fuel cell can be refuelled just like a conventional petrol or diesel engine. However, the refuelling aspect, as with all hydrogen vehicles, is one of the major current drawbacks of the hydrogen ambulance. If you are fortunate to be within range of one of the dozen hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, the current cost of hydrogen is nearly double that of a diesel car. This is a chicken and egg situation; we need more hydrogen vehicles to increase the number of fuelling stations, and to drive down the price of hydrogen production, but we also need more fuelling stations to allow more hydrogen vehicles on the road.  

Therefore, policies like the Breakthrough Agenda and the UK’s Hydrogen Strategy are desperately needed to support the upscaling of these green transitions. There has been a lot of talk so far at this COP about private and public sectors working together. Developments such as this hydrogen ambulance highlight how hard the private sector have been working. It is now time for the politicians to follow through with their policies and strategies to help the widespread upscale and roll out.  

The hydrogen ambulance still has a number of checks to go through for it to be roadworthy for transporting patients. After COP, the next step is to integrate the fuel cell and start the testing process. All being well, this fuel-powered ambulance is expected to be on the roads, transporting patients by early 2022.  

In the midst of a global pandemic, if the NHS can deliver incredible initiatives such as this, all industries should be doing their bit by developing solutions which will help to solve the climate emergency. 

Written by Jo Herschan, PhD COPCAS student