Back in 2010, we reviewed the Honda FCX Clarity. It was the first time Honda’s hydrogen fuel cell car had made it to British shores. We were impressed by the quality of the vehicle and smoothness of the drive, but there seemed to be some significant reservations as to its potential as a future consumer fuel back then. Four years later, we look at how the situation has changed.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are zero-carbon emission vehicles, emitting only water. They refuel much like conventional ICE engines and the new 2015 Honda Clarity FCX will do 430 driving miles on one tank. In addition to shifting consumer perceptions around safety, there are a number of other factors, which supporters of hydrogen as a future fuel are working on:
In 2010, there were only six hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS). This number has now increased to 15 – including one in Aberdeen – with eight more planned (yellow flags) along arterial routes. The UK H2Mobility Project is a government-led initiative evaluating hydrogen as a viable fuel. It has calculated that an initial rollout of 65 stations is required to offer reasonable commercial return and satisfactory consumer convenience to make hydrogen fuel cell cars attractive.
The challenge with the installation of HRS is that it is incredibly expensive. ITM Power, a company which creates a modular refuelling solution, estimates that the upfront cost is around £1 million per station. To increase the network, the real estate of pre-existing fuel forecourts would be ideal. Recently, Sainsbury’s supermarket chain opened the first store-based HRS in partnership with Air Products in Hendon, North London. The obstacle now is to understand where the supply of the gas comes from.
Up to now, hydrogen refuelling stations have received their supplies, somewhat ironically, by petrol-powered tanker. Recently, Honda showcased its new production plant, which uses a farm of solar power cells to create energy required to obtain the hydrogen from water. This is an important milestone, as it is the first HRS in the UK to deliver 100% clean hydrogen. Partners involved, such as BOC, will also use the plant to assess best practices for wider understanding in the adoption of on-site production.
Manufacturers have always faced a ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation when it comes to building hydrogen fuel cell cars. If they build the cars, customers won’t buy them because there’s no infrastructure. If there’s no cars, there’s no solid business case to establish infrastructure. Last month, Hyundai delivered the first six of its planned 1000-strong production fleet of ix35 FCV cars to the UK. In 2015, Toyota plans to launch its FCV and Honda will follow suit with an update on the Clarity FCX in 2016.
Improvements in technology
Hydrogen fuel cells require a catalyst. The most effective catalyst to date has been platinum. As a precious metal, this is both limited in resource and not particularly cost-effective. Manufacturers and companies alike are constantly looking for ways to reduce these costs. ACAL Energy has created a liquid catalyst, FlowCath, which reduces the platinum used a fuel cell by 80%. It’s proven that this approach is more durable and more cost-effective.
So will hydrogen ever be a viable option for the average driver?
Yes. Consumer choice is predominantly led by cost. To make hydrogen truly viable for the average driver, a cost-reducing breakthrough in hydrogen needs to come long before the much-needed breakthrough in battery technology for battery electric vehicles. The affordability in the near future will only allow those with deeper pockets to adopt hydrogen fuel cell technology. But these early adopters are helping bring the technology to a wider market. Knowledge gleaned from their use of both vehicles and infrastructure, coupled with £60m investment from the government’s Innovate UK, can only serve to accelerate cost reduction. A key issue remains the sustainable production of hydrogen, but that’s another story…