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Are hydrogen cars finally on their way to the UK? The Green Piece

Tuesday 5 February, 2013. The Green Piece Column.

Toyota and BMW and now Ford, Daimler and Nissan; marriages made in the name of fuel cell vehicles.

Why are these collaborations happening now? Well mainly because the industry is getting serious about the ideal of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) but the mammoth task of developing both the cars and the infrastructure is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Hydrogen needs a hero

While the Renault-Nissan Alliance has bravely lead the battery electric car onslaught, with an investment of €4bn into EVs, there are no stand-out heroes for fuel cell vehicles just yet.

Yes, there are a few valiant knights considering the fight; namely those already mentioned above along with the likes of Honda and Hyundai-Kia, who are pinning their hopes on these hydrogen-driven cars taking to the roads soon.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell car completing its round the world drive challenge last year

Daimler, parent firm to Mercedes-Benz is expected to be the first to launch a market product, in the form of the B-Class F-Cell scheduled to arrive in 2014.

But following in 2015, Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda have all promised that the will have production cars at the ready.

Hyundai's  ix35 F-Cell hydrogen car-already being tested on fleets Sure there are already tests fleets out running from these car makers, but we’re on the cusp of a real market launch, at last, in the next couple years.

When these cars arrive of course, there will be little in the way of refuelling infrastructure, especially in the UK, despite a recent announcement to build fuelling stations in the South East (see story).

And that story will be common across much of Europe with the notable exceptions of Norway, Sweden and Germany.

There are schemes that intend to address this problem, here in the UK, we have the UK H2Mobility project, part of the European Fuel Cells & Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, which intends to help Europe prepare for the mass market of fuel cell vehicles by 2020.

Roadmap for UK hydrogen cars

In the UK, the UK H2Mobility project has just released its first report (see story) in how it envisages the rollout of such vehicles in the country will work from a practical viewpoint.

The project combines the efforts of air Products, Daimler, Hyundai, Intelligent Energy, ITM Power, Nissan, Scottish and Southern Energy, Tata Motors, Boc Group, Toyota and Vauxhall to name a few, in collaboration with the three government departments.

This new roadmap from the consortium lays out how it is envisaged that the UK can become a centre for R&D and manufacture of hydrogen cars, as well as one of the leading markets for them.

According to the joint government-industry report out yesterday, it is projected that up to 1.6 million hydrogen cars could be on UK roads by 2030, reaching a market share of between 30-50 per cent of new vehicle sales by 2050.

Here in the UK, the study suggests that around 10 per cent of new car buyers could be interested in hydrogen vehicles, but that interest would need to be converted to sales to build consumer confidence, hopefully leading to annual sales of 300,000 by 2030.

With 1.6 million fuel cell cars on the roads by then, UK annual vehicles emission could be cut by 3 million tonnes of CO2, it is estimated. Replacing diesel vehicles with FCEVs could also save between £100 million and £200 million a year in the cost of damage to air quality caused by vehicle emissions by 2050.

The report also envisages a preliminary network of 65 refuelling stations, about 60 more than are currently planned, mainly located in heavily populated areas and busy national trunk routes.

By 2030, it is hoped that the network will stand at 1,150 refuelling stations; at a cost of £400 million.

How do hydrogen cars work?

Hydrogen-driven fuel cell vehicles come fitted with a tank of compressed hydrogen. This stored hydrogen is reacts with atmospheric oxygen in the fuel cell stack to create an electrical charge and produce water vapour as the only tailpipe emission.

Toyota's FCV-R fuel cell concept based on the Prius

While hydrogen is often steamed from natural gas and therefore comes with long tail emissions, it is possible to use it as an energy carrier for clean sources of energy such as wind and solar. Such sources of energy are often too impractical or intermittent to be used as a direct means of propulsion, so hydrogen offers a solution to that issue.

Vauxhall HydroGen4 on the roadHydrogen-driven cars also boasts and quick refuelling time comparable to that of an ordinary combustion car so don’t need hours of downtime to recharge as electric cars often do.

Driving range too is comparable to a combustion car, typically around 300 miles per full tank compared to just 100 miles for a typical battery electric car. That’s why many people who are sceptic of electric cars proclaim that FCEVs are the future instead. But it is a future that’s taking a long time to arrive.

An easy switch to hydrogen?

Because they would be much easier for drivers to adapt to, its hoped that the market won’t take quite so long to build, where electric cars have seen a steady increase in numbers, even the most hardy of EV fans won’t tell you they haven’t had teething troubles in making the switch from combustion power. Mostly the complaints centre on public recharging stations (not working or access blocked by an inconsiderate combustion car driver)-something that hydrogen car drivers will face too, only for them refuelling from home as an alternative will be more problematic.

There are prototype home refuelling stations, like this one from ITM Power (see presentation) -which plugs into mains electricity to release hydrogen from water. But to encourage private buyers to buy hydrogen cars, we expect much investment will be needed to ensure a fuel cell car can be provided with a solution like this.

Ultimately the rollout of both hydrogen cars and infrastructure is going to be expensive, and like EVs will need significant government investment and support. All that the UK H2Mobility envisages for hydrogen cars is possible; as long as the government puts the money where its mouth is. The next couple of years are critical for FCEVs; we wait with baited breath to see just how industry and government work over that time to stitch this plan together.

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Faye Sunderland

Filed under: Fuel Cells, The Green Piece, Hydrogen cars

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