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Will renewables find their Daimler moment in 2015?

Two things might happen this year: renewable forms of energy such as wind, tidal, and solar power coupled to the new power-to-gas technology could become more widespread; while there could also be a gradual decoupling of fossil fuel use from economic growth.

The issue of climate change has finally been recognised by world leaders, as one of the most serious threats to human survival on our planet.(1.) The message from the climate summit at Lima, Peru in December 2014 was to stop extracting fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas from the earth, and find alternative renewable sources of energy to power our modern world. This seemingly impossible task is the decarbonisation of the global economy, but in itself offers enormous opportunities for scientific discovery, technological development and economic growth, as the traditional fossil fuel energy industries become obsolete.

When James Watt obtained a patent for his steam engine in 1769, nobody knew that coal – the fuel that powered his machine – would be emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned, which in turn would contribute towards global warming and climate change. However, the inventor and those who issued the patent were aware of the need to conserve coal, if only on the grounds of cost and efficiency. The words of the patent said that Watt’s steam engine had been “invented for lessening the consumption of steam and fuel in fire engines”. (2.)

Watt’s steam engine was a large immobile machine used to pump water out of mines. Later steam engines became more efficient again, and were able to power spinning and weaving machines in textile mills. Richard Trevithick was one of the earliest engineers to use a steam engine to propel a vehicle. In 1801 he drove his steam carriage on the streets of Camborne in Cornwall.

The question of fuel efficiency, was one of the factors why steam carriages never really got established on the roads during the 19th century. It is difficult to see how the modern automobile could have become popular, if it had required two drivers: one to steer the vehicle on the road while the other shovelled heavy coal into a firebox. However, the building of railway lines from 1825 onwards, created the infrastructure for steam engines to get more work out of a tonne of coal. The steam engine could travel faster and pull a heavier load when its wheels ran on metal rails set on a level surface.

The move from coal to oil as a fuel for vehicles would finally make the old dream of driving a horseless carriage on the roads a practical reality. When Nicolas Otto developed the four-stroke engine at Deutz in Cologne, Germany during the 1870s, the fuel used by his machine was coal gas. At that time many of the future applications of this internal combustion engine were still unknown: the engine was then sold to small workshops to power machine-tools. It may have been Gottlieb Daimler, the technical manager employed at Otto’s factory in Deutz who realised that petrol would be a more efficient fuel for the four-stroke engine. According to Heinz Gartmann’s ‘Science As History’, Otto sacked Daimler, because he underestimated Daimler’s technical ability as an engineer. Otto was purported to have described Daimler as an “indescribably thick-headed” man. (3.)

In 2014 the company of Deutz AG celebrated its 150th anniversary. On the company’s website is a photograph of the original patent certificate for the four-stroke engine issued on 13th March 1878 and backdated to 4th August 1877.(4.) According to Gartmann, Otto’s patent was freed by the German High Court in 1883 after a legal battle. Around this time Carl Friedrich Benz who worked in Mannheim was experimenting with a gas engine to power a motor vehicle.

There must have been a moment when Daimler realised not only that the four-stroke engine could run on petrol, but also that the engine – free from the constraints of a coal gas fuel supply – could become mobile and therefore become the engine to power a vehicle. In 1883 Daimler was experimenting with a four-stroke petrol engine at his own workshop in Cannstatt near Stuttgart. He was helped by his assistant Wilhelm Maybach who had also left Otto’s factory in Cologne. At first the men fitted an engine to a wooden bicycle, and later an engine was fitted to an old carriage. A patent was obtained for a vehicle with a petrol engine in 1885.

Daimler’s automobile found a use for petrol, a refined product of crude oil. He was successful in finding a fuel and developing the technology that transformed road transport. As with James Watt’s knowledge of coal, Daimler was ignorant of the effect burning oil in large quantities would have on our planet’s climate. Today the challenge is to find a fuel that can replace the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and natural gas, in order to halt global warming. At the beginning of 2015 there were hopeful signs that hydrogen produced by the electrolysis process from renewable energy sources, will become the new fuel of motorised transport.

The Daimler moment of our own times may have arrived on 5th January 2015, when Toyota’s Senior Vice President of Automative Operations in the United States, Bob Carter announced that Toyota would grant 5,680 of its hydrogen-fuel-cell-related global patents for use royalty free until around 2020.(5.) This means that Toyota’s competitors will be able to refer to the research and development work done by Toyota on the hydrogen powered electric car, and further improve and develop hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles that will one day supersede oil powered vehicles.

Hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles cannot become a reality on the roads without the infrastructure of refuelling stations. In the United Kingdom the clean fuel and energy storage company ITM power is already manufacturing electrolyser-based refuelling stations that will provide hydrogen on the forecourt. ITM Power is involved with the HyFive project, a £31 million investment to provide three ITM electrolyser-based refuelling stations for London. The aim of HyFive is to establish the refuelling stations across Europe. The partners involved with the HyFive as mentioned on ITM Power’s website are: “The Mayor of London’s Office, BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Air Products, Copenhagen Hydrogen Network, ITM Power, Linde, OMV, Element Energy, PE International, the Institute for Innovative Technology and the European Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.” (6.)

Daimler was able to connect the four-stroke engine to petrol and road transport in the 1880s. Likewise today there is a new connectivity between the renewable energy sector generating electricity from wind, solar, and tidal energy; the power-to-gas industry using renewable energy to produce hydrogen as a fuel; and the automotive industry, which will be able to use clean fuels that don’t pollute the atmosphere.



2. Gartmann, Heinz. (1960) Science As History The Story of Man’s Technological Progress from Steam Engine to Satellite, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.15.

3. Gartmann, p.60.




©Jolyon Gumbrell 2015

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