Will hydrogen become alternative fuel of choice for future mobility? – Part 1

19 November 2019

Will hydrogen become alternative fuel of choice for future mobility? – Part 1

19 November 2019

Autovista Group’s Head of Content and Product, Anthony Machin, considers hydrogen’s potential in a two-part look at the future of mobility.

The world is changing and clean mobility is key to our futures. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) deliver practical ranges for most users but, for some, the changes needed to live with a BEV are still a step too far, especially the perceived wasted time charging regular plug-in hybrids.

Whilst internal combustion engines (ICE) offer excellent solutions to personal mobility, vehicle exhaust fumes contain certain poisonous chemicals in addition to carbon dioxide, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, benzene and particulates, all of which can be detrimental to the human body if consistently inhaled in large quantities, and damaging to the environment.

Hydrogen mobility

The goal for vehicle users is to have clean mobility whilst still arriving quickly and comfortably at their destinations. Hydrogen mobility delivers precisely this: effectively, it is electric mobility with the refuelling convenience of an ICE.

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements globally and, moreover,  hydrogen’s properties can power different types of transportation. Today, vehicles fitted with hydrogen fuel cells can convert compressed hydrogen into electricity to provide propulsion; this is a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). The gas delivers a similar range to vehicles powered by an ICE with the best part being the vehicles emit only heat and water vapour.

Trains, planes and automobiles

Two trains built by the French train maker Alstom began operating on a 62-mile stretch of line in northern Germany in 2018. The route runs between the towns and cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervoerde and Buxtehude and is normally run using diesel trains. Alstom says it plans to deliver another 14 of the zero-emissions trains to the state of Lower Saxony by 2021, while other German states have also expressed an interest.

Other countries are also looking into hydrogen trains, including Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Italy and Canada. In France, the Government has already said it wants the first hydrogen train to be on the rails by 2022.

ZeroAvia, based in Hollister, California, claims its planes will be cheaper to manufacture and fly than standard jet fuel-powered vehicles, while also producing none of the carbon emissions that make the aviation industry one of the worst polluters.

ZeroAvia plans to target small planes of 10-20 seats that fly short, regional hops of up to 500 miles. The company has conducted a number of successful flight tests using its prototype in a Piper M-class airframe. At a two-ton take-off weight and six seats in a business-class arrangement, the prototype is the world’s largest zero-emission aircraft flying without any fossil fuel support, according to the company.

Hydrogen has powered vehicles since the 1807 De Rivaz engine. With the right hydrogen extraction methods, it is as clean as fuels come. However, hydrogen still has not taken off in the automotive sector. Most manufacturers continue to experiment with the technology although a few have started producing small numbers of vehicles; namely Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Honda. Nevertheless, sceptics still suggest FCEVs will only ever be very niche, especially as most car manufacturers are a long way from launching a first FCEV, never mind a second.

Toyota launched the first iteration of the Mirai in late 2014 as the first mass-market hydrogen fuel-cell car and has continued to push on with the development of the technology. The carmaker sees the technology as a more natural alternative to petrol and diesel than electricity and has confirmed that a second generation of the Mirai is in development. The carmaker believes hydrogen vehicles will reach sales price parity with hybrids within the next decade, or by its third-generation Mirai.

Hyundai’s first showroom fuel-cell car was a converted iX35 SUV (also known as the Tucson Fuel Cell). Their second, the Nexo, takes the concept a whole lot further, in terms of both range and stack life. Hyundai has also recently announced key investments into three hydrogen companies as it looks to strengthen its position in the global hydrogen fuel-cell ecosystem.

Daimler introduced its Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell at the IAA in Frankfurt in 2017, combining a fuel cell with battery technology to produce a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) that would make the most of its driving range. The carmaker believes that the potential of hydrogen-fuel cell technology is ‘beyond question’ as it plays a major role in the discussion of ways in which companies both within and outside the automotive industry reach global climate targets. However, the company has suggested that EVs will account for up to 25% of its global sales by 2025.

Renault is to offer a hydrogen option in its light commercial vehicle range by the end of the year as the carmaker pushes forward with its development of the technology.

BEV versus FCEV

In the car world, BEVs continue to grow in popularity with most manufacturers launching at least their first model. Languishing at the lower end of the fuel-type share statistics are FCEVs. One reason for the lack of hydrogen cars on our streets is the growing uptake of BEVs as the environmental alternative. With sales of BEVs rising significantly year-on-year, it is easy for manufacturers to prioritise the development of BEVs over lesser-known technology.

Another reason is infrastructure. In a BEV, when the battery charge is low and range anxiety high, a household socket can prove to be a blessing, albeit one that is slow to come to fruition as charging is slow.

Volkswagen is to roll out a range of wall boxes to coincide with the start of sales of its ID.3 BEV. Customers will be able to charge their electric vehicles quickly and conveniently at home thanks to the ID. Charger. It offers a charging capacity of up to 11 kW and charges almost five times faster than a normal domestic power socket. Volkswagen estimates that about half of all charging operations for electric vehicles will take place at home.

However, charging at home is not an option for many consumers and, across Europe, significant investment in the fast and rapid-charging infrastructure continues to make using BEVs regularly less traumatic for drivers as range anxiety reduces.

To refuel with hydrogen, a filling station is needed just like for an ICE.

Part 2 will be published tomorrow, 20 November 2019