Hydrogen fuel cell technology offers numerous benefits, according to proponents of the technology. So why hasn’t it made more of an impact when it comes to cars?
Hydrogen is the universe’s most abundant element, and when burned, the only emission it generates is water vapor. So given the scrutiny faced by the motoring industry amid climate breakdown fears, surely it would make sense to turn to hydrogen to power our vehicles?
While commercial hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are available in the UK and US among other nations, they have not caught on in the same way electric vehicles have. But why?
They certainly have sustainability appeal: Hyundai described the vehicles as ‘the ultimate eco-cars, offering long cruising ranges with a short refueling time and generating zero emissions’ in a press release announcing the launch of its second-generation hydrogen-powered Mirai in 2020 (the first hit the market in 2014).
Few FCEVs are currently offered to consumers: in the UK, there is the Hyundai Nexo (which retails for £69,495 apiece, with 28 reportedly sold), and the Toyota Mirai, with a £55,000+ price tag and around 200 sales. Other motoring manufacturers including BMW, Land Rover, and Vauxhall are reportedly planning to release their own hydrogen-powered cars within the next five years.
When it comes to the States, the Hyundai Nexo ($58,935) and the Toyota Mirai ($49,500) are both available, alongside the Hyundai Clarity Fuel Cell ($58,490).
Few FCEVs seem to be operational in the US, with a lack of infrastructure cited as a reason by Autoweek, which says ‘almost all America’s fuel cell vehicles are in California. There are a handful in Hawaii’.
This is because outside of California’s 48 Hydrogen Refuelling Stations (HRS), and Hawaii’s one, there is currently no hydrogen fueling network anywhere else in the States, though there are some in development in the North East.
Infrastructure issues are also in factor in the limited number of FCEVs on UK roads, according to lobby group UKH2Mobility, an industry-led forum which ‘facilitates regular dialog with UK Government and other public sector stakeholders, about the future strategic direction for hydrogen mobility in the UK’.
It says there are only 11 HRS currently in operation around the UK, with the majority clustered in the South West, near London. However, it believes the infrastructure is worth developing.
The organization’s website states: “Developing and bringing any major new technology to the commercial market costs money, and hydrogen is no different.
“However, hydrogen has a key role to play in the future decarbonisation of the transport sector because it offers three significant benefits to the UK and to the wider, global economy.”
The first benefit it lists is energy security, due to hydrogen’s wide availability. Secondly, it notes that FCEVs offer environmental improvement by decarbonising the transport sector, which it says will ‘reduce emissions, limit the impact of potentially damaging climate change and improve human health well into the future’.
Explaining why hydrogen is so environmentally-friendly, it notes that hydrogen can be produced from any form of primary energy, renewable or conventional.
“As a fuel it is widely available, efficient, renewable and non-polluting,” it says.
“Today, the majority of hydrogen is produced from steam reforming. However, an increasing number of plants are using renewable electricity to drive electrolysis which is totally renewable.”
It adds that even when hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, it can ‘significantly reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gases and pollutants produced in power generation plants’.
On top of energy security and environmental benefits, the third upside of developing a new hydrogen-based transport sector ‘would provide the opportunity to create new businesses, new jobs and wider economic growth’.
The driving experience
But what about driving these cars? Can the motoring experience inspire consumer interest?
The answer to that is yes, according to famous petrol head and presenter of motoring program Top Gear, James May, who has written and spoken about owning a Toyota Mirai on several occasions.
Talking to Sky News last year, he revealed that he owned both an electric vehicle (EV) and a hydrogen car, and had been ‘comparing them in the real world’.
May said he said he is not an evangelist for either car, but has enjoyed the experience of driving both of them, which he described as ‘quiet serene and polite’.
However, May noted that while both vehicles offer eco-advantages, they also come with their own downsides.
When it comes to EVs, the most notable issue is mining for raw materials for the batteries (like cobalt and nickel), which is an intensive process. Additionally, the batteries take a long time to charge, and as May has noted, there is ‘no obvious battery development on the near horizon’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a key issue he cited when it comes to hydrogen cars is the lack of infrastructure required to refuel the vehicles.
Despite these issues, groups like UKH2Mobility are forging ahead with promoting a hydrogen-powered motoring future. And according to the organization’s hydrogen mobility strategy for the early 2020s, there are myriad reasons doing so (including airplane companies).
“When used in a fuel cell vehicle there are no harmful emissions, avoiding the impact on human health associated with poor quality air,” it said.
“By 2030, hydrogen vehicles will offer an affordable option for the majority of vehicle types and their customers.
“As a result, hydrogen vehicles will create a viable pathway to mobility with no local emissions and elimination of CO2 emissions.”