How one researcher is looking to kick-start a hydrogen revolution in Ireland

2 Dec 2020

Dr James Carton. Image: Paul Sharp/SharpPix

Dr James Carton of DCU is one of Ireland’s biggest proponents of hydrogen-powered transport and he has grand visions for future opportunities.

Dr James Carton is an assistant professor in sustainable energy at Dublin City University and is a co-founder of the Hydrogen Ireland Association and Hydrogen Mobility Ireland. He also works closely with the World Energy Council’s Hydrogen Global initiative and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Task Force on Hydrogen.

Carton has more than 20 years’ experience in hydrogen technologies and his focus areas include energy sustainability through innovative technology development with industry, as well as techno-economic modelling, hydrogen for mobility and renewable energy storage.

He previously worked with NASA, completed two microgravity flights and developed the sun shield for the closest human-made satellite to the sun – ESA’s Solar Orbiter.

‘We are at the very beginning of the commercial opportunities when it comes to hydrogen and hydrogen transport’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I was always interested in taking things apart to find out how they worked. I am not sure if there was one particular day, but the nights I dismantled the TV, blew up my bedroom and the garage were memorable, certainly when my parents came home!

I evolved into fixing mobile phones and fixing cars as an income stream in secondary school. That carried on into university and employment, where I effectively kept doing the same – understanding how things work and making them better.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am involved in many exciting energy projects, all involving hydrogen! In the most recent project, I am part of a large team who have introduced the first zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell bus to Ireland; the first on the island to go into service.

It came about last summer when DCU was looking at low-emission transport solutions and, of course, I suggested hydrogen. To do this, we developed a large team of stakeholders including the bus manufacturer and operators developing the hydrogen fuel for the bus. During this process, we had Covid-19 and other hurdles which delayed us, but we got there eventually!

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Ireland has declared a climate emergency and transport is a major contributor of emissions that are bad for the environment and for our health. Heavy transport has limited options to make them low emissions.

So having the first zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell bus in Ireland that only emits water is a huge step at showing the country can reduce emissions and that all we need to do is to work together.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

We are at the very beginning of the commercial opportunities when it comes to hydrogen and hydrogen transport. Imagine every truck, bus, train, ship and even a few cars never again releasing carbon emissions!

Hydrogen is so versatile it can be even used to make low-carbon aviation fuel. The jobs, the technology development of production and supply of hydrogen, fuelling stations, etc are very important for the country.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Researchers need to communicate with the public, industry and decision makers and I have recently been awarded some important funding to enable this.

The first is for a Science Foundation Ireland project called ‘HyLight’, in collaboration with 12 energy companies and numerous stakeholders, to provide the necessary tools to guide the cost-effective and sustainable large-scale implementation of hydrogen technologies in Ireland.

The second is from the EU for a project called ‘HySkills’, created to inform and upskill technicians and first responders about hydrogen technology.

Both these projects inform the public and decision makers, as well as allowing our workforce and economy to take advantage of the opportunities Ireland has to develop cleaner, greener technologies in the fight against the climate crisis.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

My day-to-day research is all about hydrogen but, in fact, it is actually all about sustainability. I think we can sometimes live in a selfish world where very few people understand the concept of sustainability.

Being sustainable means making hard decisions to reduce your impact on this planet, so that you give the ability for the next generation to survive and live.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Climate change, plastic pollution, oil spills, famine, habitat loss and biodiversity crises are all caused by humans and are not going away soon!

We need to tackle our fossil fuel emissions. We need to scale up the use of renewables, protect our soil, and protect and rebuild what parts of nature that are left. We need to educate decision makers and the public to make sustainable decisions.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.