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CityCat H2: a hydrogen-powered street sweeper that cleans green

CityCat H2, the first hydrogen-driven road sweeper in the world (in new window)

CityCat H2, the first hydrogen-driven road sweeper in the world.© EMPA

CityCat H2 fuel cell (in new window)

The centrepiece of the drive system is a fuel cell, which converts hydrogen into electricity.© EMPA

The emissions-free, hydrogen-powered road sweeper in action (in new window)

The emissions-free, hydrogen-powered road sweeper in action.© EMPA

Not long ago the road testing of a unique new type of municipal cleansing vehicle began on the streets of Basel in northwest Switzerland. With its brushes, vacuum equipment and water jets, it looks like any other street sweeper. But there is something very special about this little technological gem: it is powered entirely by hydrogen. This means that the CityCat H2, as it is officially known, does not emit any harmful exhaust fumes and is decidedly quieter than its diesel counterparts, making it ideal for use in busy public areas like pedestrian zones, railways and exhibition halls.

Hydrogen: the fuel of the future

The centrepiece of the sweeper’s drive system is a fuel cell that combines hydrogen and oxygen from the air to generate electricity. The key advantage of this technology is that it does not produce any emissions that are harmful to the environment. The only thing that flows out of its exhaust pipe is water vapour, a by-product of the chemical reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen.

When it comes to alternative drive technologies, fuel cells show particular promise. Not only are they non-pollutant, but also their base fuel, hydrogen, is a limitless resource because it is a chemical component of water. Thanks to these two main characteristics, fuels cells appear to offer an attractive alternative to traditional fossil-fuel driven engines, whose negative impact on the climate is well-documented.

Public-Private Partnership

However, the development of a high-performance drive system is not quite as simple as it may sound. One major technological hurdle is producing a drive system that can adequately cover the energy needs of an industrial utility vehicle. After the three years of research, engineers on the hy.muve (short for hydrogen-driven municipal vehicle) project team look like they are on the way to overcoming this problem. The project is led by two of Switzerland’s most renowned and respected research institutes in Switzerland, EMPA and the Paul Scherrer Institute, but also benefits from the input of private-sector players, such as the road sweeper manufacturer Bucher Schörling.

From the laboratory to the street

The production and storage of hydrogen is still rather costly, hence a certain reticence on the part of the car industry to invest in fuel cell technology, often citing low profitability as a reason for its reluctance. In contrast, the hy.muve project team resolutely brushed off these concerns and set about achieving the long-term goal of taking hydrogen technology out of the laboratory and on to the streets.

Back in the autumn of 2009, the streets of Basel were the scene of the first pilot trial of the CityCat H2 under real-life conditions. Although the results were promising in terms of energy consumption and efficiency, the prototype sweeper had a few teething problems linked to the design of the fuel cell and its behaviour in the freezing outside temperatures of a Swiss winter.

The hy.muve project team is working flat out to rectify these problems, so it may take some time before we see this green municipal vehicle enter into mass production.

Having said that, the CityCat H2 is sure to make a welcome appearance on the streets of Basel and other Swiss cities in the very near future.

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