15th February 2018
Why isn’t hydrogen fuel cell car development being pursued more keenly?
According to Sewell Research’s latest barometer, 30% of fleets anticipate introducing hybrid and 7% all-electric power within a year, while fresh SMMT data finds fleets are turning their backs on diesel faster than expected1.
The new breed of EVs certainly offer more useable ranges and shorter recharging times, the new Nissan Leaf for example now boasting up to 177 miles and rapid-charging back to 80% capacity in an hour. At the posher end of the scale, Jaguar’s I-PACE has a claimed range of around 310 miles and is tipped to be able to top its battery back up to 80% in around ninety minutes.
These figures are all very well but admittedly fairly poor in comparison to a fuel range closer to 500 miles and the ability to replenish in around 5 minutes, which are both traits of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV2). Why have only a handful of manufacturers been putting effort into this more convenient fuel so far?
Inventors3 have experimented with hydrogen vehicles since the 1800s and one of the first recognisable cars of modern times to run on it was the BMW 7 Series4 of which just one hundred were produced in 2005-2007. Fuel consumption was woeful at around 6mpg but one of the huge pluses of FCVs is that they don’t emit any CO2.
The Japanese and Koreans have been the most passionate hydrogen pursuers and although most trials and actual sales have been in Asia and the U.S so far, a handful of UK customers currently have the keys to a Honda Clarity5 Fuel Cell, Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell6 and Toyota Mirai7.
Limited volumes and niche technology perhaps unsurprisingly mean expensive prices, with the Mirai for example retailing at £66,000 before the government’s grant reduces it a smidgen. While cost is unarguably the first hurdle in the way of speedier hydrogen adoption, the expression ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ comes to mind, and increased manufacturer appetite would result in falling prices. Toyota reckons it could fairly easily switch some of its current cars over to hydrogen drivetrains†.
The second hindrance behind hydrogen FCV pursuance is that only a dozen refuelling stations currently exist across the UK. Until last year, most hydrogen sites were concentrated around London, but ITM Power8 and other retailers have since introduced stations near Birmingham and Sheffield plus in Wales. Still, rather like the initially scarce availability of Tesla superchargers, hydrogen cars would currently be viable only for a fraction of the population even if the vehicles themselves were more affordable.
Hydrogen fuel cell production has long been mooted as another stumbling block to keener adoption. With platinum a key component, the process is expensive, even if the result is zero-emissions motoring. Yes, it can be produced using renewal energy, which is a major benefit, but sceptics typically point out that a number of producers still fall into the easier habit of using natural gas – a process that releases CO29. The same ironic accusation has been levelled against electric cars too, though, with Swedish institute IVL identifying that for each kWh of battery storage manufactured, up to 200g of CO2 is generated by the factory, equating to up to 17.5 tonnes of CO2 for each new EV that rolls off a production line10.
While both electric car battery and hydrogen stack manufacturing simply shift the CO2 problem onto the plates of the factories and power grids, hydrogen can be produced using excess renewable energy at peak times before being stored in grids, which is a significant benefit negating the intermittency of wind, solar and other energy sources11. Yes, harnessing hydrogen is inefficient but the production of Lithium-ion batteries is likewise very energy intensive11b.
BMW might have a valid point when it says that hydrogen isn’t viable for city cars or those with short journey patterns and should be focussed on larger cars that cover higher mileages12. Still, if efforts were invested into educating fleets of the benefits of hydrogen, hence drumming up interest among fleet managers, it’s conceivable that their clout could influence the fuel’s more speedy development. Plenty of motorists still customarily rack up tens of thousands of miles each year.
Toyota is having none of Elon Musk’s derisory remarks that hydrogen cars are “incredibly dumb” and is keen to increase the range of FCVs as far as possible to obviate the current lack of refuelling stations13, while Japan aims to accelerate its hydrogen site network to 325 locations14 by 2025.
Perhaps hydrogen is being stifled quietly as the government faces a faster than expected drop in fuel duty thanks to keen hybrid and EV adoption, which would be ironic considering the promotion of such vehicles15.
It’s encouraging that automotive giants including BMW, Shell, Total and Toyota announced the forming of a Hydrogen Council at Davos last year16, as the ability to fully replenish a hydrogen car in five minutes and then tackle a range of 500 miles is ultimately more exciting than the discipline required for recharging PHEVs and EVs over the course of sometimes several hours.
9, 11. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/20/hydrogen-cars-hugo-spowers-future
11b, †. http://www.autoexpress.co.uk/car-news/electric-cars/93180/hydrogen-fuel-cell-do-hydrogen-cars-have-a-future
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