Is there still a future for hydrogen power?

Ashley Coates
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The hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai (Source: Getty)

As sales of battery-powered cars continue to climb, and charging stations appear across the country, hydrogen power seems to have dropped off the agenda in recent years.

But while it may not be powering the Teslas, i3s and LEAFs on sale today, the companies behind the development of hydrogen fuel cells are yet to give up. Annual investment in nascent hydrogen technology totals around £1.4bn and is backed by the world’s biggest automotive and energy firms.

This week some of the major car manufacturers and energy suppliers committed to providing even more support for hydrogen, promising further funding for the technology and as well as lobbying to have the fuel cells established as a key component of the future energy mix.

Launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the “Hydrogen Council” comprises the chief executives of 13 major firms including BMW, Anglo American, Shell, Toyota and Hyundai.

Despite the considerable sums involved in the development of both the automotive fuel cells and the infrastructure needed to run them, hydrogen still has a long way to go.

Whereas the overwhelming majority of electric cars are powered by lithium batteries that can be plugged into mains power, hydrogen fuel cells have to be connected to compressed gas.

The lack of infrastructure for refuelling either at homes or on the road is the primary reason why there are only three hydrogen cars on the market in the UK: the Hyundai ix35, Honda Clarity FCV and the £66,000 Toyota Mirai. Named after the Japanese word for “future”, only 12 of these cars were available to buy last year and only 15 will be on the market this year, according to figures from Autocar.

It’s a proof-of-concept for Toyota, which is betting on the emergence of a “hydrogen society” in the coming years. Despite investing huge sums in hydrogen fuel cells and associated technology, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Mercedes’ Daimler parent company, is sceptical about the future application of hydrogen in regular vehicles.

“The advantages of fuel cell vehicles as far as filling versus charging times are concerned have become much smaller,” Zetsche said recently. “For that reason, I think it’s smart to focus on battery electric vehicles.”

Mercedes is continuing to pour money into hydrogen, in the event that the infrastructure situation changes, or “the overall energy politics leads to the production of hydrogen being the storage solution for regeneratively generated power”, says Zetsche.

While the electric motor technology has largely caught up with the petrol equivalents, the car’s batteries still need considerably more development, representing a major cost for the world’s carmakers.

Stefan Juraschek, vice president of electric-powertrain development at BMW says the company will have to “walk through the valley of tears”, pouring money into developing electric cars for years to come, while no major leaps towards making the batteries lighter or longer lasting are expected.

BMW estimates that it will take seven years to double the amount of energy provided by the battery in their flagship EV model, the i3. While the i3 weighs a little over a tonne, its battery weighs 230kg.

As well as being very heavy, the batteries require huge amounts of rare earth metals, much of which is in China, and they need to be replaced after a few years.

None of these drawbacks have been enough for hydrogen infrastructure to become established as a credible alternative to batteries. The hydrogen cars on the market today can manage a range of 300 miles, but their long-term durability has been questioned. Fuel cells are also more expensive than their mass-produced battery equivalents but are also lighter.

Uptake of electric cars has been relatively strong – but questions have been raised about how environmentally friendly they actually are, once you factor in the fuel used to produce the electricity.

Hydrogen fuel cells are still widely regarded as the solution to this conundrum. Producing only electricity, water and heat, hydrogen fuel cells are far less polluting than their petrol or battery equivalents.

Hydrogen might yet find an early application in heavy haulage or “medium duty vehicles”. London operates a small fleet of hydrogen buses, with plans for many more in the future. Germany began operating a fuel cell train last year. In the United States, the federal government has spent more than $1.5bn (£1.2bn) on hydrogen technology since 2005, as a result of former President Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative.

No one knows whether hydrogen will prove to be effective or not in the long term, but for now there is some very big money behind it.

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