With the increasing emphasis on the need for us all to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’ two Monmouth-based university professors are committed to explaining the complex issues that this entails.

Professor Averil Macdonald and Professor Alun Vaughan are currently delivering talks across the UK explaining why they believe hydrogen is a better option than battery power for fuelling vehicles and also for heating homes.

One in 10 cars sold in the UK last October was reportedly hybrid-fuelled or electric powered, with the sale of electric cars tripling to 3,000-plus and the network of charging points increasing dramatically. The Welsh Government is investing £29m to support transition to low emission vehicles.

“The question we’re posing is ‘Are we ready for electric cars?’ because we feel most people are unaware of the massive changes that would be required,” Professor Vaughan explained.

“Currently only one to two per cent of vehicles in the UK are electric because they haven’t met people’s needs for the number of charging points, the time charging takes and the range it gives. But now they’re becoming more appealing people need to understand what it will take to increase the necessary electricity supply.

“Local councils talk about installing extra charging points but central government should be explaining what this will mean.

“When I worked for the Central Electricity Generating Board our mission was to guarantee the supply to a high level – but that 18 per cent spare capacity margin is now down to four per cent in the UK and there’s no means of generating the extra supply that will be needed or getting it from local sub stations to homes.

“The UK’s current system could deal with 10 per cent of vehicles being battery-powered but beyond 12 per cent the system would be creaking, with many more power stations needed to reinforce the network.

“A major increase in the demand for batteries for electric cars would also require sub-sea mining for cobalt, with terrible destruction of the marine environment.”

Professor Macdonald says that in 1999 all major motor companies were planning to launch hydrogen cars, but it wasn’t carried forward.

“It’s relatively simple to create hydrogen filling points on garage forecourts where it would take just five minutes to top up.

“The latest electric cars can be super-charged in 15-20minutes but this takes 250kW of power.

“To run the whole of the UK (hospitals, businesses etc) requires two thirds of a kilowatt of electricity per person. In other words, charging just one of these cars takes 300 times the normal use per person.”

Powys firm Riversimple has developed and road-tested an electric car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell with a 300-mile range before refilling with hydrogen gas like a petrol tank in a garage.

Founder Hugo Spowers believes hydrogen will ultimately win out because it has all the advantages of petrol and diesel, being quick to refill and offering long range.

The firm has been investing in a network of filling stations including one in Abergavenny

Monmouthshire County Council has two cars being made for them, following a study by the Welsh Government about how its fleet could run on sustainable fuels.

Roger Hoggins, head of strategic projects, says in the longer term MCC sees hydrogen being part of the plan. Lighter hydrogen-powered vehicles could be used for inspectors’ vehicles but they would also investigate the possibility of using hydrogen fuel for heavy vehicles used in waste and recycling services, highways services and, ideally, public transport.

Countries like Germany and Japan are way ahead of the UK in considering the hydrogen option.

The professors were in Japan for the first Wales game in the Rugby World Cup where hydrogen-powered buses were transporting supporters to the grounds.

Germany meanwhile is gearing up to providing a full network of hydrogen filling stations.

“The UK Government is beginning to accept that wind and solar power isn’t enough - there’s no silver bullet,” said Professor Macdonald.

“In the UK 23million homes use gas for heating but if in the future the Government outlaws gas – the next logical step after coal, diesel and petrol – converting all those homes to electric heating would be a phenomenal task.

“The UK and the Netherlands have a vast infrastructure of polyethylene-lined gas pipes which could also be used to carry hydrogen – which has no carbon atoms. And, since hydrogen can burn the same as natural gas (methane), existing boilers could be converted rather than replaced.

“Town gas used in the 1960s and 70s was half hydrogen. The fact we have the necessary lining already in the pipes is serendipity!”

She points out that Leeds has undertaken a feasibility study (the H21 Leeds City Gate project) on converting the city’s natural gas network to 100 per cent hydrogen, Bosch is producing burners that work on hydrogen, Keele University is experimenting with injecting hydrogen into pipes to run alongside gas and shipping companies are considering converting vessels to run on hydrogen rather than heavy diesel oil.

Professor Macdonald, who also delivers talks on topics such as the pros and cons of plastic, says the issues around reducing carbon emissions are far more complex than people think.

“For instance, glass bottles weigh more and take up more space than plastic and therefore require more lorries on the road. Cucumbers in plastic packaging keep for 14 days compared to only three without – and rotting food gives off harmful gases.

“Only two per cent of plastic waste comes from Europe, compared with 85 per cent from the Pacific basin. In the Philippines in one day they could coat the surface of Manilla a foot deep in their waste plastic.

“There are so many misconceptions. Do you know, for example, which country has the greatest energy use per head of population?

“The answer is Iceland, mainly because of its computer servers for Instagram!”• Averil Macdonald is Emeritus Professor at the University of Reading and Professor of Inclusion and Equality at the University of Birmingham.She was awarded the international Bragg Medal and Prize (1999) by the Institute of Physics, London, the accolade of Woman of Outstanding Achievement in Science (2007) and an OBE in the Birthday Honours list 2015 for services to women in science.As a member of the Women’s Business Council, she advises the UK Government on how to encourage girls into science and advance women’s careers in the STEM fields.Alun Vaughan, born and raised in Aberdare, has a B.Sc in chemical physics and a Ph.D in polymer physics.After working at the UK’s Central Electricity Research Laboratories and The University of Reading, he is now Professor of Dielectric Materials at the University of Southampton.