AN engineering firm’s breakthrough in hydrogen technology could potentially double the range of electric vehicles.

County Durham-based Inova Power Limited yesterday revealed its breakthrough – a powder that can be used to generate electricity by extracting hydrogen from water.

The firm, based at NetPark, near Sedgefield, is now working with Sunderland University’s Institute of Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice (Amap), with funding from development agency One North East, to commercialise the product.

Using a small system in the boot of the car, the powder comes into contact with water and extracts hydrogen, which is converted into electricity, using a fuel cell.

Although an electric car would continue to be primarily powered by its battery, the extra electricity would be used to charge it while the vehicle is moving, potentially doubling its range.

Range anxiety, with most electric vehicles able to travel about 100 miles between charges, has been identified as a potential barrier to their mass uptake.

Inova is already talking to vehicle designers about the technology, which would rule out the need for giant hydrogen tanks and filling stations, which have been one of the main drawbacks to using the gas in cars.

It comes as the North-East aims to turn itself into a hub for electric vehicle development, with the Nissan Leaf car to be produced at Sunderland from 2013, batteries for the vehicles produced at a plant on Wearside from next year and 1,300 charging points being installed in the region.

Inova Power managing director Mark Nailis said: “It will work like a video casette.

You buy them in packs of five and put them into something that looks like a cassette machine.

“Our process uses waste products to cleave hydrogen from water cleanly and safely.

“While the North-East is leading the way in developing the next generation of lowcarbon vehicles, here in the region we have found the perfect way of supplying the power to complement this work.”

Inova chairman David Bowles, a former Northern Development Company director, said: “It is the coming together of two converging technologies. Sunderland University has been working hard on fuel cell technology for the automotive industry and we have been looking at new ways of generating hydrogen.

“This is about generating new industries and we hope our little business will grow quickly. In the next few years, we could be employing 50 people directly and 150 people externally in the supply chain.”

Adrian Morris, Amap operations manager, said: “It is important that we are keeping the knowledge in the region to commercialise it.

“This is really exciting technology, it is the first stage but it works very well.

“This is a revolutionary system for on-board hydrogen generation and battery charging, and marks a significant step forwards in our understanding of hydrogen as fuel for the automotive industry.”