Hydrogen is in the air...
Of the various alternative fuels, hydrogen is without doubt the solution of the future. Several models are already hitting the roads within captive fleets in Europe.
Hydrogen is without doubt the fuel of the future. Every manufacturer is looking into how it can be used in the automotive sector and, as confirmed by the numerous prototypes seen at the recent show in Los Angeles, hydrogen vehicles will soon be marketed to the public. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai in particular are making rapid progress in this area, but the German manufacturers are fast on their heels.
How does it work?
In the automotive sector, hydrogen is used as a fuel to feed a fuel cell, which produces the electricity used to power the vehicle. A vehicle with a fuel cell is therefore an electric vehicle that generates its own electricity, so it does not need an external electrical feed. In short, it is a small factory! The hydrogen is stored in the form of a gas in a pressurised tank.
What are the benefits?
The advantage of a hydrogen vehicle is that it does not produce any CO2 emissions, just water vapour, making these vehicles very environmentally friendly. In addition, they are capable of offering lower running costs and mobility advantages in certain urban areas. And hydrogen cars offer a range almost twice as big as conventional electric vehicles, sometimes in excess of 500km. Thanks to this very practical range, hydrogen vehicles are more versatile than traditional electric vehicles. They are also much quicker to recharge - the battery in an electric vehicle takes 7 hours on average to recharge fully using a conventional socket, whereas a hydrogen vehicle can "fill up" is just 3 minutes or so (the refilling time varies according to the pressure of the hydrogen and the ambient temperature).
The majority of manufacturers are already operating hydrogen prototypes in captive fleets. For example, Honda has been renting the FCX to selected clients in Japan and the United States for several years. The Japanese manufacturer has also just unveiled its new hydrogen saloon - the FCV Concept (136 bhp and a range of 700km), which is the precursor for a series model due to be marketed in 2016.
Korean manufacturer Hyundai has already launched its ix35 hydrogen SUV in Europe (136 bhp and a 600km range) in captive fleets for both public organisations and private businesses. Since the end of 2011, Hyundai has also been supplying its ix35 Fuel Cell to European authorities (MEPs, commissioners and official representatives of the European Union), to promote fuel cell vehicle technology with success. The car manufacturer is willing to boost this technology further and seems to have all tools and money in place to develop an attractive customer offer.
Toyota is going even further than its competitors - it officially started marketing its new hydrogen saloon to the general public in Japan in December 2014. The model, called the Mirai (which means "future" in Japanese) will reach California and Europe in September 2015. The Mirai is a 4-seater saloon 4.89m in length. It generates 154 bhp and has a range of around 480km.
What are the challenges?
The first challenge facing hydrogen vehicles is that the fuel distribution network still has to be built. There are still very few stations supplying hydrogen in Europe - but initiatives are in place, such as the HyFIVE (Hydrogen For Innovative Vehicles; www.hyfive.eu) project, which consists of 15 partners (5 of which are vehicle manufacturers - Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Daimler-Mercedes and BMW). The aim is to deploy a total of 110 hydrogen vehicles across the European continent while developing a network of hydrogen service stations. That being said, the captive fleets testing the hydrogen vehicles often have their own hydrogen station.
Another challenge is producing "clean" hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen is mostly produced from natural gas, which is a non-renewable source. The aim of the HyFIVE project is to demonstrate the viability of a method of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity via the electrolysis of water.
The last challenge concerns the cost of the technology, which is currently very expensive. The Toyota Mirai, for example, will be selling in Europe for € 66,000 plus tax. Hyundai states its fuel cell cars will become cheaper as technology will advance and acceptance will become more widespread. So things are moving on and hydrogen cars will without doubt become a fixture on our automotive landscape in the very near future.