Hydrogen fuel cell: do hydrogen cars have a future?

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With electric vehicles growing in popularity, do fuel cell cars risk being left behind or do they still have a big role to play?

It’s the most abundant element on earth. It was powering engines in 1807, and, with the right extraction methods it’s as clean as fuels come. Yet hydrogen still hasn’t taken off in the automotive sector. Most manufacturers are experimenting with the technology and some have started producing small numbers of vehicles, but we’re still years from a mass roll-out. The sceptics say it will never happen.

One reason for the lack of hydrogen cars on our streets is the growing uptake of electric vehicles as the green alternative – with sales of pure EVs rising by 37 per cent year-on-year, it’s easy for manufacturers to prioritise EVs over lesser-known tech. Another reason is infrastructure. The clichéd analogy is the chicken-and-egg dilemma, but it rings true here. If there is nowhere to refuel a car, why own one, and if there are no cars around, why build refuelling stations?

But hydrogen is far from finished. We’ve come to Swindon, the self-proclaimed hydrogen capital of the UK, to find out why the element has a future.

The sceptics’ first argument against hydrogen vehicles is that they’re less efficient than EVs are. Because hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally, it has to be extracted, then compressed in fuel tanks. It then has to mix with oxygen in a fuel cell stack to create electricity to power the car’s motors. Cynics point to the efficiency loss in this process when compared with an electric car in which the electricity comes straight from a battery pack.

That’s true to an extent, but hydrogen-powered cars are not expected to replace EVs. Instead, for makers such as Toyota, hydrogen will complement electric power, and there’s a good reason for this: it is, and will be, the cleanest fuel possible.

“Every single major manufacturer is either looking at or working on hydrogen cars,” says Jon Hunt, a marketing manager for Toyota and head of commercialisation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

“Lithium-ion battery production [for electric vehicles] is very energy-intensive. As an example, a 100kWh battery will give a potential range of 250 miles and, in order to produce that battery, it will take around 20 tonnes of CO2,” says Hunt.

“A typical battery lasts for 150,000 miles, so that equates to around 83g/km of CO2. Then, when you take into account charging over that same distance, the same battery car will deliver 124g/km of CO2 over its lifetime,” he explains.

In comparison, today’s hydrogen cars have life-cycle emissions that are at least as low. A recent study found a hydrogen car such as the Toyota Mirai emits around 120g/km of CO2 over its lifetime. But this can be brought significantly down when hydrogen is produced from renewables.

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A common method of hydrogen production involves separating it from natural gas (steam methane reformation), but work is underway to obtain hydrogen from biomass, a process that would significantly cut the life-cycle emissions from hydrogen to around 60g/km CO2. This is below the level that EVs will achieve, even when electricity is sourced from renewable sources, because of the environmental costs of battery production.

For truly sustainable mobility, hydrogen is a fuel that cannot be ignored. Hunt says this is particularly applicable in the heavy goods sector, where electric trucks are hampered by battery capacity and having to recharge using the power grid. Yet developing a full hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, with which the gas is produced and then transported to stations, would take billions of pounds and years to develop. There are currently fewer than 20 operational refuelling stations in the UK, compared with around 5,000 (and rising) electric vehicle charging points.

The key to encouraging hydrogen vehicles is making them part of a wider ‘hydrogen economy’ – building refuelling stations for hydrogen cars alone would be inefficient. Instead, ideally, the whole energy sector would incorporate hydrogen into the mix, from refuelling cars to storing energy for homes.

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And this can start locally. One benefit of hydrogen is that it can be produced on site rather than being transported like fuel, or supplied through the grid like electricity. “Rather than having a nationwide project, hydrogen can start out in local hydrogen hubs and work its way out,” says Clare Jackson, manager of Swindon-based Hydrogen Hub, an organisation that is promoting the hydrogen economy.

And so we find ourselves in the Lydia Park grounds in Swindon to understand how councils can start their own hydrogen economy. The Wiltshire town is where the UK’s first fully renewable hydrogen station opened in 2011, in a Honda dealership. The station is able to produce hydrogen on a commercial scale using solar power, without relying on the UK energy grid.

There are now six hydrogen-powered cars running on Swindon’s streets every day. This is thanks to leasing firms such as Arval, which has taken the leap into hydrogen and incorporated the cars into its fleet. Vehicles are now being leased to organisations such as the Science Museum Group and the National Trust, while Swindon Council has installed a second hydrogen station and may have more on the way, because Arval plans to have 170 hydrogen cars in the town by 2020.

But a localised approach will never achieve a nationwide uptake. Toyota, Daimler and BMW are leading a group of 13 companies across the world, investing $10 billion over the next 10 years in developing hydrogen technology and infrastructure.

Government investment also has a role to play. “In the UK today, around 1TW of energy is produced in renewables but not used,” says Hunt. “That’s excess generation that could be stored. This can produce around 18,000 tonnes of hydrogen – enough to power 90,000 vehicles for 12,000 miles.” Hunt says the investment needed for a plant to process and distribute hydrogen is less than the sum the country spends on nuclear power, and it’d be cleaner.

Germany will build 400 stations by 2023, leading Hunt to warn: “UK PLC cannot afford to miss out on hydrogen; as other countries are developing their infrastructures, the UK cannot afford to fall behind.”

But even with hydrogen infrastructure in place, be it local or nationwide, hydrogen vehicles still face the issue of costs. The Toyota Mirai retails from £61,500, and that’s after the current £4,500 Government grant. That is a lot to pay for any car, but there are two ways to solve the question of price.

The first is Toyota’s own. Jon Hunt says that the company’s cars are all based on a modular platform, and swapping them from a hybrid to a hydrogen structure isn’t difficult. “The [hybrid] drivetrain is totally transferable. So the adoption of the fuel cell is simply replacing the petrol drivetrain. Toyota is aiming at building 30,000 hydrogen fuel cell cars by 2020.”

The other option is a more radical rethink. “All low-carbon vehicles demand a premium in the market, but buyers aren’t necessarily willing to pay this premium for the efficiency gains. So we need a different business model,” says Hugo Spowers, founder of sustainable car company Riversimple.

Instead of selling its Rasa two-seater, Riversimple intends to sell its customers a ‘service’: they will never own the car, but, for around £370 a month (although Spowers says this is not the finalised figure), they’ll have access to a certain mileage of hydrogen driving, with fuel, insurance and all other costs covered.

Spowers added: “This allows us to compete against conventional cars long enough until the supply chain costs come down. That, we believe, is a fundamental barrier to getting major uptake of the tech.”

There are still a lot of ‘ifs’ about hydrogen, but there are far fewer today than there were a decade ago.