Hydrogen cars delayed only by cost and fuelling infrastructure

European Innovation ConventionHydrogen-powered vehicles are available and suitable for everyday use right now – this was the key message I took away from the hydrogen fuel-cell stand at the European Innovation Convention in Brussels 10-11 March 2014.

The stand – presented by the European (and rather awkwardly named) Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH-JU) – enabled me to examine for the first time a hydrogen-powered vehicle designed for normal, everyday use. The car in question was a Hyundai ix35 FCEV, a mini 4×4 of the type that is increasingly popular with Europe’s ageing car-buying public.

It is also of particular interest to anyone concerned with air pollution and living in Europe’s traffic-bound cities. The ix35 FCEV (fuel-cell electric vehicle) looks the same as a normal small 4×4, and claims similar levels of performance and convenience in use. The giveaways are the lack of an exhaust pipe and a raised floor in the boot that limits luggage space slightly, which I assumed to be due to the size of the hydrogen tanks.

Hyundai ix35 FCEVThese fuel tanks give the car a range of around 560 Km, and in order to allay customer fears about driving a mobile hydrogen storage tank have been tested to destruction. The two high-pressure H2 tanks (total capacity 5.64 kg @ 700 bar) have been put through the most rigorous and demanding test-regime imaginable – including dropping them, setting them on fire and even shooting at them – to ensure their structural integrity.

So why are we not driving these cars now? “The issues are manufacturing cost and refuelling,” says Bert De Colvenaer, executive director of the Brussels-based FCH-JU. “At the moment these vehicles are practically hand-made, and cannot be produced at a price level the market would accept. And of course there is the question of hydrogen infrastructures.”

“We are funding some infrastructure projects,” he continues, “although building such networks requires cooperation from both public and private bodies. Once such facilities are available we expect market costs for these vehicles, hopefully with government encouragement, to drop rapidly.”

Hydrogen-powered London busThe group is working with cities and regions across Europe, and claims that we should start to see such facilities appearing on major European routes (e.g. Germany’s autobahns) very soon. At national level (e.g. Germany, UK, France), some hydrogen-based pilot installations are already in place for public-vehicle fleets, including London’s buses and the city’s ubiquitous black cab.

My own belief is that market take-up of such vehicles is likely to be slower than the fuel-cell evangelists would like. However there is little doubt that they solve one of the major drawbacks of the electric-only vehicle – battery life – offering a vehicle range that can be considered as useable in Australia’s outback as it is in Europe’s crowded centre.

Honda has had its own pilot project with FCEVs in California for some years. There the company focused on leasing rather than purchase for reasons of manufacturing cost, however there appear to be no complaints about the vehicles from customers who have been using them every day.

So I have little doubt that we will start to see more of them on the road. If the FCH-JU has its way – and the public-private group is backed by nearly € 1 billion of funding from its members – that day will come sooner rather than later.

© Philip Hunt, 2014.

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More info at http://www.fch-ju.eu/

European Hydrogen Association http://www.h2euro.org/

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