Hydrogen is a miracle fuel. A car that’s powered by the most abundant element in the universe can actually be cleaner than a battery-electric vehicle, but it has the range and flexibility of a petrol-powered car. On the face of it hydrogen seems to offer the very best of both worlds.
There are a number of hurdles standing between it and mainstream penetration, however. Some of those difficulties, in fact, may not be mere hurdles that can be stepped over, but insurmountable barriers. It was 10 years ago that a powertrain engineer at Lotus Engineering said to me, ‘hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be’. In his view, the challenges facing hydrogen as a transport fuel meant it would simply never take off. A decade later, is hydrogen anything more than a pipe dream?
What has changed in that time is the number of hydrogen-powered cars that are on sale. From none at all there are now two such cars available to the public; the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo. A hydrogen version of the Mercedes-Benz GLC is just around the corner, too. Clearly, those three car makers believe hydrogen will have at least a minor role to play in the sustainable future of personal transport.
Hydrogen can be ignited in a combustion chamber to drive a vehicle, just like petrol, but the way it will be used in the future - if at all - is in a fuel cell. Rather than burning the stuff, fuel cell cars mix hydrogen with oxygen from the atmosphere to create electrical energy, which is then used to power an electric motor that drives the car’s wheels. The compressed hydrogen is stored in tanks, often positioned beneath the boot floor.
The benefits of using hydrogen in this way are potentially game-changing. All that is emitted by a fuel cell car is water. The cost of refuelling a fuel cell vehicle, as well as the time it takes to do so, is comparable to that of a petrol car, while the range between refills is much the same, too. That means, in theory at least, fuel cell cars do not have the same range and charging time concerns of battery-electric vehicles. In short, they are both clean and flexible.
For the time being, though, hydrogen fuel cell cars are expensive to buy. The Toyota Mirai costs £61,500 even after the £4500 government grant for clean vehicles, and the Hyundai Nexo is expected to cost much the same. A conventional petrol car, meanwhile can offer the same level of performance, comfort and space for less than half the cost. If demand for hydrogen fuel cell cars does increase over the years, the cost will of course come down steadily.
Driving a fuel cell vehicle is just like driving a battery-electric car. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference from behind the wheel. Just like EVs, fuel cell cars are very quiet and they return brisk, effortless performance from low speeds. They also have single-speed direct drive transmissions, which means there are no lurchy gear changes. Hyundai expects to sell only a handful of Nexos each month in the UK, most of them to businesses that want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability.
With all of that on its side, why is hydrogen still facing an uphill struggle? It may well be abundant, but extracting, harvesting and compressing hydrogen so it can be used as a transport fuel is a difficult and energy-intensive process, and therefore not as clean as it might be. Erwin Reisner, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, said to CNBC, ‘Producing hydrogen with solar power is very attractive because it really gives you clean hydrogen. But at the moment 96 percent of the hydrogen we are using is produced from fossil fuels - it’s not clean. So it’s very important to develop technologies that allow us to go from fossil derived to clean and renewable hydrogen.’
There is another more practical and prosaic hurdle standing between hydrogen and mainstream adoption, but it’s one that will prove even harder to overcome. That is, we simply don’t have the infrastructure here in the UK to support hydrogen fuel cell cars. At the time of writing the total number of hydrogen fuel stations across Britain is just 17 (although there are plans to triple that number between now and 2025). Without an extensive hydrogen infrastructure, fuel cell cars are no more flexible or usable than battery-electric EVs. The problem, of course, is a chicken-and-egg one: until there is more demand for fuel cell vehicles the infrastructure will not develop, and that will inhibit demand.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of time. According to research carried out by the European Climate Foundation fuel cell vehicles will account for no more than two per cent of all new car sales in 2030. By 2050, however, more than a quarter of new cars will be hydrogen-powered. Fuel cell cars will probably never replace battery-electric vehicles - certainly not in the foreseeable - but they will complement them. After all, two-thirds of Europeans have no means of plugging their car in at home to recharge, so for many of those a hydrogen fuel cell car could one day be a much more convenient alternative.
Until the hydrogen used to power fuel cell cars is derived from clean and sustainable methods, the technology is fanciful at best. And unless the infrastructure required to support it develops at a much faster rate this great wonder fuel will continue to be nothing more than a fuel of the future.