All you need to know about hydrogen fuel cell vehiclesDriver
By Andrew Maclean
Electric cars are starting to become more prevalent and a viable alternative to conventional vehicles with an internal combustion. But, just as there are diesel and petrol-powered engines, not all electric vehicles will have only a battery to store energy.
Another solution – hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles – is racing to become the fuel of the future. And it could just be the silver bullet.
What is Hydrogen?
Well, Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe and the lightest element on the periodic table. It is the H in H20 and can be extracted from water by electrolysis or produced in large quantities using natural gas via either Methane Pyrolysis (where methane bubbles up through molten metal to produce hydrogen) or Steam Reforming (where the hydrogen is extracted from water vapour).
Hydrogen, as a fuel, has been widely regarded as the cleanest long-term transport solution as it doesn’t produces toxic emissions such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides like fossil fuels. All it emits is water vapour.
As such, car makers have been experimenting with hydrogen-powered vehicles for decades, both as a replacement for petrol to power internal combustion engines and in developing hydrogen fuel cells that drive an electric motor. The former method, which was seen by the likes of BMW, Mazda and Mercedes-Benz, as a viable solution to keep the combustion engine alive has largely been abandoned in favour of fuel cells.
So, what is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?
A Hydrogen Fuel Cell is essentially a small-scale power station that generates electricity. In principle, it has a similar make-up to a battery in that it consists of an anode and cathode bathed in electrolytic fluids. But, instead of storing energy provided to it by another source through recharging, a fuel cell creates its own electric current through the process of electrolysis when hydrogen and oxygen are pushed through the anode and cathode that creates a chemical reaction. Basically, it’s a living battery.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell development took off (literally) in the mid 20th century as NASA allocated massive resources in order to provide power for its manned space exploration modules. Fuel cells were used extensively in the Gemini and Apollo missions as well as the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
General Motors created the first Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle in 1966 with the Electrovan. Only one example was ever built, however, as the entire rear section of the van was required to house the fuel stack and hydrogen tanks.
Can I buy a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle?
More recently, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) have become a viable future solution through further developments that have reduced the mass of the fuel stack while increasing its efficiency and power outputs, as well as the strength of materials required for smaller fuel tanks that can hold highly pressurised and compressed hydrogen.
In New Zealand, Hyundai has imported three examples of its Nexo SUV to trial and for public assessment while Toyota plans to do the same later this year with its Mirai sedan.
Officially, neither are earmarked for sale just yet because of the limited re-fuelling infrastructure, but both brands aim to use the vehicles as a demonstration of the technology in preparation for a widespread roll-out of hydrogen re-fuelling stations in the future.
The Mirai is a four-door sedan about the same size as its popular Toyota Camry but, in place of its four-cylinder petrol engine, it has a 128kW fuel cell under the bonnet that feeds a 134kW/300Nm electric motor to drive the rear wheels.
Toyota claims the Mirai has a total driving range of 650km and its fuel tank can be re-filled in between three and five minutes.
Similarly, the Nexo has a front-mounted 95kW fuel cell that drives a 120kW/395Nm electric motor and has a claimed driving range of 666km and five-minute refill time.
Both have all the latest safety systems and and are loaded to the hilt with all the luxury and convenience features available from Toyota and Hyundai respectively. And there is nothing complicated about operating them; just select D for drive and they drive like any other car.
So, what’s the problem?
Hydrogen might be the most abundant chemical in the universe, but you can’t just pull it out of thin air. As the lightest element too, it needs to be highly compressed in order to be used as fuel.
And, quite simply, there are only a couple of trial locations in New Zealand at the moment where you can top-up a Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle.
That’s why the trial fleets are so small and why neither the Mirai or Nexo are being sold to the public in the traditional sense.
But that could change dramatically over the next decade as more car makers commit to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and, consequently, energy suppliers look to broaden the availability of commercial hydrogen.
Can New Zealand become a hydrogen powerhouse?
Hydrogen provides a huge opportunity for the country, both economically and environmentally, and could play a significant role in the future of our renewable energy plans.
The New Zealand government has outlined that Hydrogen could become the default energy source for the country with its Vision for a Hydrogen Future Green Paper suggesting that “establishing a strong role for hydrogen in the economy is a very real option and within reaching distance.”
“The potential development of a new global commodity market in hydrogen is now also accelerating interest and investment. This international commodity market in hydrogen is slowly emerging, allowing countries with abundant renewable energy to export to those with an energy deficit due to lack of domestic resources or a need to balance seasonal differences. This could provide an opportunity for New Zealand to diversify its economy and create new jobs through exporting hydrogen to meet increasing global demand for secure, decarbonised renewable energy.”
With an abundance of solar, wind and geothermal energy sources, New Zealand is primed for hydrogen production.
Where will hydrogen make its biggest impact?
Putting the economic benefits of production to one side, hydrogen – as a fuel for future transport solutions – won’t be the only silver bullet.
While petrol-powered internal combustion engines will likely be phased out completely over the next 20 years or so, both hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles are expected to play different roles.
For urban environments, where the average daily commute is relatively short, battery electric vehicles are likely to be the predominant option as the packaging benefits of having a skateboard-like platform offers car makers more flexibility to create a range of vehicles, from small city cars to SUVs, using the same fundamental components.
Like today, Fuel Cell Vehicles will suit those that drive long distances and need the convenience of quick refuelling to keep on the road. And, because of the complexity of having to house the fuel stack, a small battery, electric motors and large hydrogen fuel tanks, FCEVs will most likely be suited to large sedans and SUVs.
Beyond normal everyday options, Fuel Cells are expected to make a much bigger impact in in the public transport and heavy trucking sectors.
Hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses have been used around the world for over a decade, with extensive fleets operating in cities such as London, Munich, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai.
In Australia, the Western Australian government ran a three-year trial for three hydrogen-powered buses in Perth from 2004, which it said covered more than 260,000km, carried more than 330,000 passengers and claimed to save more than 300 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
More recently, Transit Systems, which operates a large section of Australia’s public transport network, will integrate 100 hydrogen fuel cell buses into its fleet under its H2OzBUS initiative, in partnership with Ballard Power Systems, ITM power group, BOC gases and Palisade Investment Partners.
In New Zealand, Auckland Transport recently added its first hydrogen fuel cell-powered bus as part of a two-year trial to understand its operational costs and benefits.
In the heavy truck segment, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota have each invested heavily in the development of hydrogen-powered prime movers.
Hyundai has produced 46 of its Xcient fuel-cell trucks for a public trial in Switzerland in partnership with 25 transport operators, covering logistics, distribution and supermarket fulfillment. So far, in just 11 months, the fleet has covered more than one million kilometres of driving and reduced emission outputs by 630 tonnes.
Hyundai plans to produce an additional 140 trucks for Switzerland in 2021 and expand the program across Europe with more than 1600 vehicles in operation by 2025.
The New Zealand government has co-funded a project for Hyundai to purchase five Xcient trucks for local use with a commitment to build eight re-fuelling stations across the country by the end of the year, a further 16 by 2025 and to have more than 100 stations in operation by 2030.
The Xcient truck is equipped with two 95kW fuel stacks while seven individual fuel tanks hold a total of 33kg of compressed hydrogen for a driving range of approximately 400km. The tanks can be re-filled in between eight and 20 minutes – a similar timeframe to refuelling a conventional prime mover with diesel.
Mercedes-Benz’s Actros GenH2 prime mover prototype has only recently begun a rigorous development program with customer trials planned to commence from 2023. It uses liquid hydrogen to power the fuel stack, which it claims holds more energy and allows for more compact and lightweight fuel tanks, giving the vehicle a higher payload capacity and an estimated driving range of more than 1000km.
So, there you go, all you need to know about Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. While there is still a long way to go before this technology becomes more widespread, there is no doubt that hydrogen will play a pivotal role in what – and how – we drive.
Hydrogen is sustainable and relatively simple to produce, offers the convenience of quick re-filling and, most importantly, produces no harmful emissions. It is the fuel of the future.
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