Are hydrogen cars the transport of the future?
Diesel is dead, petrols are to be outlawed and the future is all-electric.
So scream the headlines and it’s true that the long-term future of conventionally fuelled vehicles seems to be bleak but is the future really going to be all about battery-powered electric cars?
While they steal most of the coverage at the moment there are car makers out there examining alternatives, with several, including Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, BMW, Honda and Mercedes pouring billions of pounds into the world of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV).
Toyota already have the Mirai, Hyundai’s largely experimental IX35 Fuel Cell is being replaced by the more mainstream Nexo early next year and Kia have promised that alongside their plug-in and EV range they will have a fuel cell car on the roads by 2020.
So what are FCEV and are they really an alternative to the growing tide of EVs?
The science bit
Simply put, an FCEV is an electric car where the motor or motors is powered by electricity created by the splitting of hydrogen atoms rather than from a traditional battery stack.
A fuel cell, similar in size to a regular combustion engine contains an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. Hydrogen passes through the anode, where its molecules are split into protons and electrons. The electrons are forced through a circuit, generating an electric current to power the motor, while the protons pass through the membrane. At the cathode, the electrons are reunited with the protons and oxygen to produce water – a FCEV’s only tailpipe emission.
The advantages of an FCEV over a battery-powered EV currently lie in refuelling and range. Filling up a car with hydrogen is a similar process to filling with petrol or diesel and takes a similar time. While EV charging times are coming down they’re still a long way from a full charge in three minutes.
FCEVs also have much larger ranges than current EVs. The Hyundai Nexo has an NEDC range of 500 miles – similar to an ICE-powered car. Even the longest-range battery EVs can only manage 300 miles.
Those backing hydrogen power also argue that fuel cells are better suited to heavier purposes including industrial vehicles such as trains, ships and potentially even planes, where batteries cannot produce the required power or longevity. In Kia and Hyundai’s native South Korea there are already hydrogen-fuelled buses in operation.
What’s more, proponents of FCEV emphasise that hydrogen can be produced cleanly and sustainably. Hydrogen is the universe’s most abundant substance and can be obtained in a few ways. The most common are by breaking down water or natural gas. By using electricity from renewable sources, electrolysis of water can produce hydrogen with no harmful emissions. It’s also a good way of using rather than wasting surplus energy at off-peak times.
Breaking down natural gas produces carbon dioxide as well as hydrogen but those backing FCEVs argue that the CO2 emitted is still far less overall – up to 30 per cent – than in running a conventionally fuelled car.
So why aren’t FCEVs already storming the market?
Money, money, money
Hyundai/Kia’s head of FCEV research Dr Sae-Hoon Kim admits that the technology is currently very expensive. The cost of the cutting-edge components within the cells is massive although constant research and development is helping bring this down.
However, Dr Kim says the costs will fall “very quickly” through the economies of scale if FCEVs are widely adopted. He estimates that sales of 100,000 units a year could bring FCEVs into a similar price bracket to conventionally-fuelled cars.
He’s also optimistically predicting a shift in political will within the next decade which, he hopes will address another of FCEVs’ current weaknesses – fuelling.
Infrastructure is a sticking point at the moment. More EV charging points are springing up daily in the UK but there are only 12 hydrogen-capable stations – all bar one of them south of Manchester.
In Kia and Hyundai’s native Korea the government is having to offer subsidies to filling station operators to add hydrogen facilities and has a relatively modest target of 310 stations in operation by 2022. In Japan, regulation around the handling of hydrogen and the relatively high cost of installing hydrogen pumps are holding its roll-out back.
Even if these can be overcome, the issue of supply and demand still stands in the way. Without customer demand there’s no desire to spend money adding hydrogen fuelling points yet without a strong network of filling stations customers will be reluctant to commit to an FCEV.
Packaging is also a potential stumbling block. EVs use compact motors mounted at the wheels and battery packs can be sandwiched in the floor, allowing for more interior space in the same on-road footprint than conventional cars. With a fuel stack the same size as a regular four-cylinder engine, the makers of FCEVs are largely stuck with similar layouts to conventional ICE vehicles.
Fuel of the future or fuel of fools?
Tesla’s Elon Musk has dismissed FCEVs as “incredibly dumb” but, as a man who owns an electric car company, that’s hardly surprising.
He argues producing hydrogen fuel is less efficient that producing electricity for battery EVs. The counter argument is that hydrogen can be produced in a zero-emissions manner and offers the convenience of quicker fuelling and longer range than lithium-ion powered EVs.
The big question for FCEV is are they too late to the party? Battery EVs like the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe and Tesla Model S are increasingly commonplace on our roads and the UK Government has clearly thrown its weight behind plug-in vehicles with the promise of £400m to expand charging infrastructure. What’s more, EV range and charging abilities are improving all the time. The new Leaf can hit 80 per cent charge in as little as an hour and VW says its ID all-electric models will be capable of in excess of 400 miles on a charge.
Hyundai, Kia and Toyota say their latest FCEVs are fully commercial viable vehicles with realistic lifespans, unlike the early examples, but they’re already playing catch-up. In their favour, the longer range and rapid refuelling ease many of the worries motorists have around EVs but that’s only relevant if there are enough fuelling stations.
There’s also the expense. You can get a Leaf or Zoe for less than £30k but the Toyota Mirai carries a price tag north of £66,000, with the Hyundai Nexo expected to cost a similar amount. As Dr Kim says, the more people who buy FCEVs, the cheaper they’ll get but, as with the fuelling stations there’s a chicken and egg scenario where people will only start to buy them when they reach mainstream prices.