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A hydrogen future

40w ago

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With the fate of the internal combustion engine seemingly sealed, more and more buyers are making the switch to electric cars. Tax incentives, cheap running costs, and the smug feeling of saving the planet seem to be consumers’ main motives. So why is the potentially cleaner option of hydrogen being left behind?

Hydrogen cars run on electric motors like a conventional electric car, but the electric motors are powered by a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen within a fuel cell. The only thing coming out of the exhaust pipe is water vapour and they can be filled up in just a few minutes at a conventional-looking pump, while range is anything between 250 and 400 miles depending on the car. This means no range anxiety and no waiting around while your car slowly charges. So what is holding hydrogen cars back?

The new hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai

Well first of all, there’s the small issue of actually producing the stuff. While hydrogen may be the most abundant substance in the universe, getting it into your fuel tank is, for now at least, actually pretty tricky. At the moment the most common way of extracting hydrogen is through steam methane reformation – 1000°C steam is used to heat natural gas which eventually separates the various elements, including hydrogen – but an extra-green method to extract hydrogen from biomass is currently being researched.

As easy as filling up with petrol

This will bring the typical hydrogen car’s life-cycle emissions down to around 60g/km, roughly half that of an electric car, even when charged from a renewable source. The lithium-ion batteries used by electric cars are very energy-intensive, and the manufacturing process produces vast amounts of CO2.

The next big thing holding back hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is infrastructure. Currently there are over 5000 electric car charging points in the UK but fewer than 20 hydrogen filling points, although big energy companies like Shell plan to build more in existing stations. And while Toyota does have hydrogen models available to buy, no one will buy one if they can’t fill it up.

That being said, most major manufacturers are already developing their own hydrogen vehicles and London’s Met Police currently have a fleet of Toyota Mirais patrolling the city. However, as with all cutting edge technology, fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are quite pricey. Very pricey in fact – a new Toyota Mirai (the only mass-production FCV on sale in the UK) starts at over £65,000 although prices will eventually come down as more cars are brought to market.

A Met Police Mirai

So, for now at least, electric cars still make more sense than FCVs – they’re readily available, they can be found in various body styles at various budgets, and the range is more than acceptable for most commuters. But hydrogen cars will soon be a viable alternative – they’re true zero-emission vehicles that already have lower CO2 lifecycles than most electric cars, and that will be reduced further by biomass extraction.

So how do hydrogen fuel cell vehicles fit in alongside EVs?

Speaking to Claire Sayles (General Manager Sales and Marketing at Shell) about the competition between EVs and FCVs, she said: “We believe both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles have the potential to be an important part of a low-carbon transport system. They both help reduce emissions and address air pollution while offering convenience for motorists. Road transport will require a mixture of different fuel options to meet growing demand for mobility in a low-carbon world, which includes both hydrogen fuel cells and EVs.

“Alongside building hydrogen infrastructure, Shell is also providing charging points and services to serve the growing number of customers driving electric vehicles. We’re committed to delivering a range of fuels to UK drivers, as new technologies evolve to co-exist with traditional transport fuels, so we don’t see one replacing the other at this stage.”

And what about the future of the internal combustion engine?

“We believe different fuels and engines will develop and co-exist to meet the growing demand for mobility with lower emissions. This means that for the foreseeable future, internal combustion vehicles (ICV) will likely live alongside Electric and Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles, especially as infrastructure for new energies grows and costs are reduced.”

It is unlikely FCVs will ever replace electric cars, but with the infrastructure improving all the time, a future where hydrogen-powered cars are selling in EV numbers might not be far away.

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