Hydrogen powered cars are here but building the infrastructure is key

By: David Bailey @dgbailey
Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - 15:48 GMT Jump to Comments

As Hyundai launches the ix35 Hydrogen Fuel Cell car in UK the Government put £11 million into hydrogen refuelling stations. Japan plans to have 1000 by 2025. David Bailey expects the athletes’ fleet at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to be powered by hydrogen!

The first Hyundai ix35 Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars recently arrived in the UK, with the firm being the first to introduce a hydrogen-fuelled car for customers.

Other firms like Honda have had hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles on test in Europe and the UK, but Hyundai is the first to sell hydrogen fuel cell cars to customers. It’s a bit of a coup for the firm.

Hyundai states that the ix35 Fuel Cell car can go for 350 miles (that’s a lot more than my electric Nissan Leaf) with zero tailpipe emissions. It can then be refuelled with pressurised hydrogen, in a process that’s not unlike filling up a conventional car with petrol or diesel.

The arrival of the cars came just a few days after the announcement by the UK government of an £11 million investment aimed to start an initial network of up to 15 hydrogen refuelling stations by the end of next year, and some funding for public sector hydrogen vehicles.

Initial orders for the ix35 have come from organisations such as Air Products, ITM Power, Johnson Matthey and Transport for London. Hyundai, though, states that the public can order the fuel-cell cars by contacting it directly.

Some analysts and commentators – myself included – feel that hydrogen fuel cell technology could - in the long run - replace the internal combustion engine (ICE) powered cars. But before then, auto makers and governments have a hard job to do to get costs down and to demonstrate how the technology works. But, as noted above, that may be easier than with electric cars as hydrogen cars can be used in a very similar manner to the cars we are all used to.

Yet battery Electric Vehicles (EVs), for all their range limitations, already have a modest infrastructure in place. There are quite a few chargers in and around Birmingham for example, and the US already has over 8,700 public charging stations in place.

Even without these charging stations, EV drivers have a basic fall-back safety net: the ability to charge cars via any common household electrical plug (when the charger at Aston Street is out of use, I simply plug in at home). No such option exists for hydrogen.

More broadly, the drawbacks of hydrogen use are high carbon emissions intensity when produced from natural gas, a high capital cost burden, a low energy content per unit volume, the low performance of fuel cell vehicles compared with ICE-powered cars, the production and compression of hydrogen, as well as big investment in infrastructure needed to fuel cars.

Moreover, when hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are run on hydrogen derived from natural gas, they don’t provide much environmental benefits on a ‘well-to-wheels’ basis. While methods of hydrogen production that don’t use fossil fuel could be much more sustainable, at the moment renewable energy represents a small percentage of energy generated, and power produced from renewable sources can also be used in EVs.

Overall, the challenges facing the use of hydrogen in vehicles include production, storage, transport and distribution.

Nevertheless, much is happening on the hydrogen front. The big driver globally is the Japanese Government’s Energy Plan, which makes it clear that hydrogen is a key energy for the country going forward. That has given a big confidence boost to manufacturers like Hyundai’s with its fuel cell-powered ix35 SUV, as the firm now knows that the infrastructure will be in place.

Indeed, Japan is planning to have 100 hydrogen stations running by 2015 and 1,000 by 2025. There’s likely to a huge boost around the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; expect the athletes’ fleet of cars to be hydrogen powered.

Don’t write off EVs though. Tesla and Nissan are both selling pure electric cars in decent numbers globally. New entrants like JLR are likely to enter the market to challenge Tesla at the premium end. Interestingly, JLR’s engineering director Wolfgang Ziebart sees the market for EVs segmented into inner city vehicles and a “second or third car for a wealthy family.” The latter suggests that “greenness” may be becoming a key part of premium brands at the top end.

The likes of Tesla are rolling out a network of super-chargers across the country (with the possibility of opening them up to other EV users, while local authorities and the government are also supporting an urban infrastructure of charging points.

And of course China is expected to become a big market for battery-powered luxury EVs over the next few years, as the government pushes EV adoption to help tackle air pollution problems, especially in major cities.

We’re likely to have a range of different technologies powering cars going forward, even if ICE powered cars are likely to dominate for the foreseeable future.

Professor David Bailey works at the Aston Business School

There's a storm coming and we are sleepwalking to disaster. The Leader on the carbon fuel problem 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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