I am a convert to hydrogen fuel cell electric cars

David Thorpe
News Editor at EAEM
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Post date: Saturday, 18th August 2012

This week at the Investing in Future Transport event in London I was able for the first time to drive a hydrogen-fuelled fuel cell car, and it has seduced me.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am no petrolhead. I don't particularly like driving, although I did when I was young, and I would much rather be on my bike. My last car was a Ford Focus, which I chose because, although a diesel, it did excellent mileage and was easy to handle. It was scrapped at its last MOT and now I share my wife's Metro; we downsized.

But this car felt like a dream. It is a Hyundai prototype ix35 SUV, which has been selected by the European Commission-backed ‘Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking’ (FCH JU) to be used as a demonstration vehicle to test and promote hydrogen fuel cell technology in a real-world environment. That's why it was there at City Hall and I was allowed to drive it.

It is an automatic, so there are only two pedals. In addition, it has no handbrake, so there are disconcertingly few controls. It is also a left-hand drive as, so far, there is not a right-hand drive model available. There are only 20 in the whole of Europe.

Acceleration is very fast and immediately responsive. I was told by the public relations lady sitting anxiously next to me (the car is probably worth a hundred thousand pounds) that it does 0 to 60mph in 11 seconds, and that you can drive for 300 miles without needing to fill the tank.

That means you could reach most of the United Kingdom from almost anywhere else in the country.

The only slight reservation I had, was that if the lever was not positioned in neutral the car tended to move forwards slowly, so, pulling up at traffic lights, you have to keep your foot on the brake. You could put it into neutral, but then it would take longer to start up.

Of course, it makes absolutely no noise, so there is an artificial purring sound added in the design so that, reassuringly, you know that the engine is running. The display tells you how many miles worth of hydrogen is left in the tank. By the way, the tank itself is under the boot, and leaves plenty of storage space.

Speaking at the event, Hyundai's Dr Ing. Sae Hoon Kim told delegates that he thought ultimately hydrogen vehicles will play a strong role in what will inevitably be a mixed picture for personal transport. “Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are perfect for long-range, but smaller electric vehicles are suitable for urban driving, because they hold less charge – a maximum of 80 miles – and take longer to charge," he said.

It takes about as long to refuel an FCEV as it does a conventional petrol car.

Since 2000, Hyundai has produced 200 FCEV SUVs. The current model, that is about to go into production, will use an induction motor, not a permanent magnet motor, and have a 525km range. It can do 1-100kmph in 12.5 seconds, with a 160km/hr maximum speed.

The main drawback right now, he said, is durability; the fuel cell stacks can only last for about 100,000 km. Previously, there were issues with a danger of the water that is output from the car (its only output) freezing inside under certain conditions, but this danger has been eliminated and tested in Arctic conditions.

As far as production is concerned, they are produced on the same line as conventional vehicles. The fuel cell is installed in the same place as the engine. “Hyundai is intending to go into mass production with the cars in 2015," Hoon Kim said. Production of the first thousand will begin next year and be part of test fleets around the globe.

Currently, prices are an eye-watering five times greater than the conventional car, but, Hoon Kim said, this will come down.

They may be 60% efficient compared to an internal combustion engine's efficiency of about 30%, but the real test is well-to-wheel comparison of carbon emissions which, of course, depends on how the hydrogen is generated.

The dream of the hydrogen economy is that all hydrogen will be developed from renewable sources. At present, much of it is reformed from fossil methane. This methane could come from the sustainable anaerobic digestion of organic waste. Otherwise, it can come from the electrolysis of water using renewably-generated electricity.

What is the global warming effect of driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, if the hydrogen is electrolysed using mains electricity in the UK today?

Assuming 56kWh of electricity produces 1kg of hydrogen, which is the claim of ITM, then, if we take the latest figures from Dukes, which say that 443 tonnes of carbon dioxide were produced for every gigawatt-hour (GWh) of mains electricity (in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available), that is 24.8kg CO2 sent into the sky.

This compares to 10.472kg of carbon dioxide emitted on average for every gallon of petrol burnt in a car. Accounting for the fact that the hydrogen vehicle is around twice as efficient as a petrol-driven car, this means that there is little difference between their emissions overall.

Interesting as it is, this is academic, not least because we are decarbonising the grid. Besides, there are several prototype facilities in the UK already producing hydrogen for vehicles from renewable sources. Any small-scale renewable electricity generator can be set up right next to a refuelling station, producing hydrogen 24/7. The great thing about hydrogen is that it is an energy storage medium. The wind blows at night and you can’t use the electricity? Save it in hydrogen.

Marks & Spencer's, Walmart and FedEx are already using fuel cells in forklift trucks in their warehouses because they keep going for many times longer than battery-powered forklift trucks. This is a niche application, of course, but it will accelerate the development of fuel cell vehicles generally.

There are several drivers for this development: much less oil is being found by prospectors than previously and there is an imperative to decarbonise transport.

This is a huge opportunity for the UK and we should be prioritising it. Transport secretary Norman Baker sent a video message to yesterday's conference in which he touted the government's UKH2 Mobility project, launched at the beginning of this year, under which 13 industrial partners are evaluating potential rollout scenarios for hydrogen for transport in the UK.

More recently, five projects have been announced that will demonstrate the use of fuel cells and hydrogen and show how they can be integrated with other energy and transport components, such as renewable energy generation, refuelling infrastructure and vehicles, to develop whole systems and show them working together.

There is fierce competition from America. Last month, the US Department of Energy (DOE) released its final report for a technology validation project that collected data from more than 180 fuel cell electric vehicles over six years. It shows that development of fuel cell systems exceeded expectations, which will spur a new round of research and development.

The main problem in the UK is not a shortage of inventors, researchers and developers, it is a shortage of partners at the industrial level who can take our inventions up to mass production and capitalise on them to the fullest extent. We don't have our own auto manufacturing company. This, despite the fact that we manufacture 1.4m cars a year, most of which are exported.

This is where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should step in. When the results of UKH2 Mobility are known, the full weight of government backing should be put behind the chosen strategy.

Of course, we need inward investment to help to make this happen, but for once we should retain ownership. This is a win-win proposal.

Our personal transport future will, in a couple of decades, comprise a complex picture with a mix of electric vehicles of different sizes, powered by both batteries and fuel cells, plus biofuel powered vehicles. We will also see much more electric-powered mass urban transport systems.

In this picture, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will play a big part, and I, for one, want to own such a vehicle, that has been manufactured in Britain by a British company.

So get on with it!

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