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Hydrogen: The best alternative to internal combustion?

The collapse of the diesel market and stricter CO2 targets planned for 2025 and 2030 have pushed the automotive sector into an electric frenzy. But are electric vehicles (EVs) the best solution for all concerned?

There is another technology available for development, albeit one which has been in its infancy for some time. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) offer a long range, with a filling time equivalent to a petrol or diesel tank, and the only emission is H2O, otherwise known as water. So why is this technology not being rushed through like EVs are?

What is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle?

A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is just that, a vehicle with a hydrogen fuel cell on board. It is still an electric vehicle, but rather than a battery, the car features a fuel cell stack. Drivers fill up a high-pressure tank with hydrogen, which is then fed into the stack, where it reacts with oxygen found naturally in the air and generates electricity.

Cars also feature a battery to capture energy produced when braking or even just slowing down, which can supplement the energy produced by the stack, creating even better efficiency.

Why EVs?

The answer is simple. Electric vehicle technology has been around and in development far longer and is at a more advanced stage than hydrogen. Also, while perhaps still not sufficient, the charging infrastructure is more advanced than the hydrogen refuelling network.

While diesel was a viable alternative to the CO2-belching petrol engine, manufacturers had the luxury to study both concepts, decide what path to take and then develop at their leisure. However, with Dieselgate, and the ensuing decline in demand, this path has changed.

By 2021, the average CO2 across a new car fleet for every manufacturer must be 95g/km. Any more, and they risk a fine of €95 per gram over, multiplied by the number of cars sold. To put this into context, recently Daimler said it was achieving an average of 135g/km in 2018. If you add together the company’s sales in that year, and the previous one, the German business is looking at a fine of over €6 billion.

Therefore, the more developed EV technology needs to be prioritised and rushed through. For the first time in decades, the automotive industry is being reactive, rather than proactive, with external forces dictating the direction it needs to take.

Will hydrogen happen?

The answer to this appears to be yes, just not in the short term.

Hydrogen propulsion has been in development for decades. One of the first to publicise its efforts was Honda, who developed the Clarity model, before dropping the programme due to its expense.

At the same time, however, Toyota was developing a fuel cell vehicle of its own. As Toyota holds a bigger global market share and therefore makes more money than Honda, it was better able to bankroll its vision.

The company sells an FCV, the Mirai (Japanese for future), with some models available in Europe. The Japanese carmaker supplies the vehicle to the Metropolitan Police force for example and has formed a joint venture to build and improve infrastructure in France.

Added to this, national governments are also slowly starting to develop the hydrogen infrastructure. The UK Government, for example, has committed £23 million (€26 million) to the cause, although due to the increasing uptake of EVs, expanding the EV charging infrastructure must come first.

Toyota has also pledged to share its hydrogen patents with any company that is interested in developing the technology – a sure sign that the carmaker believes it is the best technology for the future of motoring.

Hyundai too has developed and markets a fuel cell vehicle in Asia, with limited availability in Europe. Daimler is also pursuing a hydrogen vehicle, albeit at a much slower pace as it stands to lose more through CO2 fines if it doesn’t rush through EV technology first. Like Toyota, Daimler has announced it is to sell its fuel cell technology to rival carmakers, in an effort to bolster the market for hydrogen.

Is hydrogen better?

Making hydrogen is a more energy-consuming process and so many feel that this makes the fuel a non-viable alternative to greener technology. However, only so much electricity can come from renewable sources.

Hydrogen also has the advantage in that drivers can fill up a tank in minutes, rather than waiting 30 minutes for an 80% charge. A full tank can deliver a range of up to 300 miles, and the only emission is water.

The technology is therefore perhaps best suited to the logistics sector as heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will suffer from the increasing push to EV technology. The bigger the vehicle, the more batteries it will need, and the longer the charge. Every minute lost in the logistics industry costs money and so hauliers cannot afford to spend hours recharging their trucks or vans.

Hydrogen buses already operate in major cities around Europe. Again, the shorter refuelling time and better range compared to EV technology mean buses are not off the road for long.

‘Hydrogen is the key to a decarbonised future,’ said Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada at the presentation of a McKinsey study into the fuel in 2017. ‘Toyota firmly believes in the future of hydrogen, and we will be at the forefront of hydrogen technology,’ he affirmed.

It is worth noting that this study was backed by leading representatives of 18 multinational corporations, including BMW, Daimler, Audi, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai.

Hydrogen passenger cars will come. However, just like EVs, the technology will be hampered by slow development of the infrastructure. Once carmakers have perfected their electric technology, they will increasingly turn to FCVs. Rather than petrol and diesel, the future choice will be electric or hydrogen. It is a question of when, not if.